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Canadian Police Used Lie Detectors In Parliament Hill Terror Attack Investigation

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police used polygraph machines while investigating a high-profile terror attack on Canada's Parliament, even though courts and researchers say the tests are unreliable.

by Justin Ling
Mar 9 2016, 7:00pm

Photo via the Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick

Polygraph tests may be unreliable and inadmissible in court, but Canada's federal police force relied on them after two different terror attacks on Canadian soil in recent years.

In 2014, Canadian-born Michael Zehaf-Bibeau opened fire on Ottawa's National War Memorial and killed Corporal Nathan Cirillo, before dying in a gun battle with police inside the Parliament buildings.

In the ensuing investigation, according to a recently published report from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the investigators brought out lie detectors to figure out just what had happened.

It's not clear what the RCMP was doing using the oft-derided practise that has become a pariah in the legal world — an unreliable metric of truth-telling that is not admissible in any American or Canadian courtroom, that studies show can be easily fooled.

But they did, indeed, still use it — and they use it a lot.

The 2014 to 2015 departmental performance report from the RCMP reveals that the polygraph tests were used some 849 times, in the span of just one year. The work falls under the RCMP's Truth Verification Section, which has 33 polygraph operators scattered across the country.

A spokesperson for the RCMP confirmed to VICE News that the polygraph was administered after Zehaf-Bibeau's capital shooting spree.

"While we can not comment on the event at the War Memorial, we can tell you that the Polygraph can be used in any criminal investigation," the RCMP spokesperson said in an email. "It is a voluntary process that is used as a tool to assist in the assessment of veracity of a suspect, or witness in some cases."

Reports emerged after the shooting that Zehaf-Bibeau had been staying at an Ottawa-area homeless shelter and had tried to convert others who had been staying at the mission. It's unclear if the tests were used on material witnesses such as those, on the gunman's family members, or on eyewitnesses to the attack.

"The polygraph has no place in the judicial process where it is employed as a tool to determine or to test the credibility of witnesses."

The report also includes that the polygraph test was used after the mass shooting in Moncton, New Brunswick, that claimed the lives of three RCMP officers, at the hands of a domestic anti-government terrorist.

The website for the Truth Verification Section openly admits that the polygraph test is used — although, it says, "the opinion of the truth verification specialist is not intended for court purposes" — and insists that "under controlled conditions, a polygraphist can evaluate physiological changes that determine if they are consistent with truthfulness or attempted deception."

Studies suggest otherwise.

A statement from the American Psychological Association says there is scant evidence that polygraphs are accurate, and that "without a better theoretical understanding of the mechanisms by which deception functions, however, development of a lie detection technology seems highly problematic."

A National Research Council study into the machines came to the conclusion that evidence supporting the tests "is scanty and scientifically weak."

"Even if the truth — or the magic machine's opinion about the truth — of your answers isn't admissible, your answers are. So it's a good way for the police to induce a statement out of someone."

Canada's top court has rejected their use in law outright, even for witnesses.

"The polygraph has no place in the judicial process where it is employed as a tool to determine or to test the credibility of witnesses," reads a landmark ruling on the use of polygraphs in the courtroom, handed down by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1987.

VICE News reached out to the FBI to find out if they, like their Canadian counterparts, use polygraphs for investigative purposes, and received a blunt answer from one of the department's spokespersons: "yes we do."

Michael Spratt, an Ottawa-based criminal defense lawyer, says local police definitely use polygraph machines on suspects, usually as a way to compel a statement — or, if they refuse the test, they use it as the basis to lay charges.

"Even if the truth — or the magic machine's opinion about the truth — of your answers isn't admissible, your answers are. So it's a good way for the police to induce a statement out of someone," Spratt says.

Spratt says he would rarely, if ever, encourage his client to undergo a polygraph test — and police can't compel anyone to submit to one — and can't see the actual benefit to getting eyewitnesses or family members to take the test.

Many police forces, including the FBI and the RCMP, use the test for new recruits looking to join. The RCMP performed nearly 2,400 test on job applicants last year.

It's not just polygraphs.

They also employ, according to the website, "forensic hypnosis" which they maintain "is useful in eliciting information from a complainant, victim or witness." The RCMP verifies all information obtained through hypnosis, the website says, and they add that "hypnosis is not used in relation to suspects or accused/charged persons for the noted reasons."

The performance review also published the results of an RCMP study, which asked those involved in the 'specialized investigative analytical capabilities' offered by the RCMP — which includes the Truth Verification Section — and found that just 66 percent were satisfied, well below the police force's goal of 85 percent.