How Cops Lie to Kids in Interrogations—and Get Away With It

Two new bills in Oregon and Illinois are trying to change that.
A suspect being questioned
A suspect being questioned (Getty Images/iStock)

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Anyone who’s watched true-crime shows knows cops lie to adult suspects to get a confession. 

But right now, in real life, cops in the U.S. are also entirely free to use deceptive tactics on children in the interrogation room, like falsely telling them they have incriminating DNA samples, fingerprints, or a weapon linking them to an offense. They can even imply a child will be charged as a juvenile and allowed to go home if they simply admit fault. 

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Unsurprisingly, the outcomes can be disastrous: Studies show children are between two and three times more likely to falsely confess to a crime compared to adults, according to the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law in Chicago. 

In a bid to reform this and prevent wrongful convictions, lawmakers in two states—Illinois and Oregon—have moved to ban police from lying to kids in first-of-its-kind legislation just this year.

Illinois lawmakers passed a bill to prohibit deception during youth interrogations in May, restricting cops from knowingly offering false statements about evidence or leniency. What’s more, the legislation also makes it so that confessions from kids using deceptive tactics will be presumed to be inadmissible in court. 

Oregon’s Legislature followed up by approving a similar bill with the support of law enforcement groups last week. The proposal, like Illinois’ bill, is currently awaiting a signature from the state’s Democratic governor. 

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“The movement behind these bills really stems from the problem of false confessions,” said Laura Nirider, the co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions. Her clients have included Brendan Dassey, whose case was featured in the popular Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer.”

“False confessions are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions,” she added.

The issue, in part, is cops’ use of confrontational interrogation methods, including the Reid technique, which was introduced more than 70 years ago and entails law enforcement confirming their existing belief of guilt by squeezing a confession out of someone. 

“It permits deception, explicitly, and it really is seeking to get a confession out of a suspect that law enforcement already believes committed the crime,” said Rebecca Brown, policy director for the Innocence Project. 

John E. Reid and Associates, the company that developed the Reid technique and still trains police to use it today, has said that when false confessions arise, it’s because the guidelines for their technique aren’t being followed. Officers are not supposed to promise leniency and are urged to use “extreme care” when approaching children in particular.

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Even so, Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates, a leading interrogation consulting firm that also trains police, said it would stop using the Reid technique in 2017. And interrogators in places like the United Kingdom rely instead on the “PEACE method,” a different method of questioning crime suspects that is “less confrontational, less accusatory, less deceptive, more conversational, and more focused on gathering information,” according to a 2017 paper published in the New York University Law Review.

In the U.S., meanwhile, critics have argued for decades that lying to crime suspects during interrogations, which was affirmed by a Supreme Court decision in 1969, is wrong, particularly when imposed on children. Kids might be more eager to please authority figures and face a “distinct imbalance of power” in the interrogation room, Nirider said. 

If the adult sitting across from a child is armed with a gun, a badge, and an air of authority, for example—and says the kid is better off confessing, or maybe can go home if they do so—a child might be liable to go along with whatever that adult says, even if it’s patently false. That’s only exacerbated by the fact that children often go into interrogations without another grownup to play referee, like an attorney or a parent, and routinely face questioning alone. 

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“You tell them, falsely, that there’s irrefutable evidence of their guilt, and you tell them, falsely, that they’re going get life in prison based on that irrefutable evidence that doesn’t actually exist—unless they confess, in which case things will be much easier for them,” Nirider said. “You can see how these tactics combine to incentivize somebody to confess, even to a crime they didn’t commit.” 

Now, advocates are hoping that laws banning deception will become more commonplace. Legislators in New York also introduced a bill to prohibit cops from lying to both adults and kids. It was in that state that perhaps one of the most famous instances of police deceiving kids took place: the Central Park Five case, in which group of Black and Latino teenagers falsely confessed to being involved in the brutal rape of a New York City woman in 1989. 

The incident so deeply riled up the nation that Donald Trump took out full-page ads in multiple newspapers declaring “Bring back the death penalty and bring back our police!” But the boys said it was the cops who coaxed them into admitting involvement, which included lying to them. They spent years in prison before they were eventually exonerated.

“During the hours of relentless questioning that we each endured, detectives lied to us repeatedly,” Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, and Raymond Santana—members of the group now known as the Exonerated Five—said in a January New York Times column that urged New York State legislators to pass a measure banning deception.

“They said they had matched our fingerprints to crime scene evidence and told each of us that the others had confessed and implicated us in the attack. They said that if we just admitted to participating in the attack, we could go home. All of these were blatant lies,” they wrote. 

And they’re not the only ones to suffer that kind of fate. Dassey, who was featured in “Making a Murderer,” was convicted of helping his uncle to murder a photographer—a crime to which he confessed when he was just 16 years old. His legal team has argued that Dassey, who was a special education student, was coerced into that confession after a deceptive, lengthy interrogation. Dassey has since insisted that he’s innocent and sought a pardon or commutation from Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers in 2019. That request was denied. 

Although Dassey remains behind bars, his case was instrumental in influencing the legislation that’s set to ban police from lying to kids during interrogations in Illinois, Nirider said, “because it has been so widely publicized, because ordinary people were shocked when they saw his interrogation video and the use of deceptive tactics against him.”