When Ava DuVernay’s miniseries When They Us premiered on Netflix back in May, her retelling of the 1989 Central Park Five case, where five black and brown boys were falsely accused and convicted of rape, looked a little different depending on which side of history you were on.
To some, it was a brutal yet necessary reminder of the systemic and persistent racism within the American justice system. To others, it was a smear campaign against cops and investigators who were just “doing their job”—even though it was proven, long before DuVernay came along, that it was a hack job riddled with inconsistencies and gaping holes in logic. First, former New York prosecutor Linda Fairstein cried foul over her villainous portrayal.
And now John E. Reid and Associates, the company behind the controversial interrogation techniques used by investigators, have filed a defamation lawsuit action against DuVernay and Netflix.
In late 1940s, polygraph expert John E. Reid developed the Reid technique, a method of interrogation that leaned more on psychology than physical violence to extract information. The Reid technique is based on the implicit assumption of guilt—i.e., we know that you did this so you might as well confess, regardless of whether that may be true or not.
During the interrogation scene in the first episode of When They See Us, the investigators play the boys against each other, falsely telling one that the other already fingered him as the culprit. They berate them with false testimony so incessantly that it starts to seem like it might be true. However, the Reid technique isn’t called out by name until the final episode when one character tells NYPD detective Michael Sheehan, “You squeezed statements out of them after 42 hours of questioning and coercing, without food, bathroom breaks, withholding parental supervision. The Reid technique has been universally rejected.”
Reid’s lawsuit claims that the Reid technique is mischaracterized, that it doesn’t rely on coercion tactics, nor has it been “universally rejected.”
The Reid technique was once standard for police officers across the nation, but it began to fall out of favor once research and a string of exonerations began to call into question the method’s effectiveness. Experts believed that playing the psychological warfare card more often than not led to false testimonies. In 2017, Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates, a consulting group that has worked with a large amount of U.S. police departments and had been training detectives with the Reid technique since 1984, stated it would no longer do so. According to president and CEO Shane Sturman:
Confrontation is not an effective way of getting truthful information. This was a big move for us, but it’s a decision that’s been coming for quite some time. More and more of our law enforcement clients have asked us to remove it from their training based on all the academic research showing other interrogation styles to be much less risky.
As with many lawsuits, this will likely boil down to a game of semantics. The Reid technique has been proven not to be a reliable method of interrogation, but has it been “universally rejected” as When They See Us asserts? That’s for the courts to decide.
What isn’t up for debate, though, is the fact that five boys in 1989 were falsely accused of a heinous crime because of racial profiling and police strong-arming. Call the last thing what you will.