The Face of Lying

UCSF's Paul Ekman, a national expert on the science of lying, helps police (and journalists) determine whether perps (or presidents) are practiced prevaricators

To discover what those emotions mean, you have to get to know the bearer: You learn how he thinks and feels; discover his fears and wants. You must get to know him as if you were his closest friend.

Ekman's findings had obvious applications to police work, in which officers are charged with tripping up liars on a daily basis. Several years ago Ekman began advising officers at the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, the Oakland Police Department, and elsewhere. But for Ekman's method to work among criminals, something extra was required. Ekman's telltale expressions are most detectable on a blank slate: a face that has been blanched of anxiety, fear, mistrust, or nervousness. The ideal canvas: the face of a person who has just been seduced.

So the police interviewer must become a confidence man, a purveyor of deceit nearly as conniving as his subject. He convinces the vile rapist to imagine himself among friends; the murderous fiend to believe that his sins are mild; the embezzler to think he finally has a confidant.

"A good interviewer has to be like a chameleon," explains Nick Flint, head of a Santa Rosa police interrogation school that trains officers from the San Francisco Police Department.

The good police interviewer is also an actor, a salesman, a therapist, and a friend. The best ones are people you like the moment you meet them. They're quick with a handshake and a smile, tossing off a friendly confidence, and effortlessly lending an understanding ear. They're the type of people you like, and you'd like to earn their admiration in return. They're the kind of individuals you just want to talk to. And they're the sort of people whose job it may be to see that you're locked away for life.

So the interviewer's task is, first and foremost, to put the subject at ease: with a handshake, a brush on the arm; or talk of sports, family, or shared childhood memories.

"You have to adapt to the person. You get the person to believe, and to feel, that they're connected, that they have a common goal with you," says Flint. "Your goal is to make them want to deliver information."

To learn more about these techniques, and to study how the Ekman method is used by police, I sign up for a weeklong course sponsored by Los Medanos College, an Antioch junior college that offers mid-career training for law enforcement officers. Upon meeting J.J. Newberry, our instructor for the week, I am immediately impressed with the link between interviewing talent and having an ingratiating personality: I like the man right away.

As he banters with me and my law-enforcement classmates, Newberry seems a natural. He's quick with a joke or a flattering comment. He's an absorbing lecturer, inadvertently sprinkling his banter with Norm Crosby-esque slips of the tongue -- "cooperating evidence," "a flirtive movement of the eye," and "you have a hinkling that they've been truthful." I've had drinks, lunch, dinner, and more drinks with J.J., and I enjoy his company. He's a man who loves to tell stories about his career as an ATF agent, yet he's oddly humble about it. He's witty, insightful, and good at what he does. I glow at the flattery he offers me during the time we've spent together. I like the idea that he might like me.

Despite the camaraderie, we both understand the game. He'd like me to write a favorable story about his brand of police interrogation. I'd like him to help me obtain information for a newspaper article. Getting on each other's good side comes with the territory.

"Why do murderers confess knowing they will go to the gas chamber?" Newberry asks. "For a fleeting moment, they want to ease the pain of lying. For a moment, they want to relieve the tension. At moments like these, who are you going to tell? That's right. Your best friend."

The craft of seduction and betrayal Newberry teaches in his class is at once subtle and blunt. One of the classroom texts is How to Make a Man Fall in Love With You, a self-help manual for lovelorn women. Newberry instructs us to gain the trust of a subject, and then to determine what he is like when relaxed and telling the truth. The next step is to make him lie. Ask him to tell his story, then tell it backward, then tell it frame by frame, all the while looking at his face, shoulders -- or any other instrument of Darwinist emotional expression -- for the true story. Then, exploiting the relationship you have forged in the interview room, you pressure the subject to tell you the truth.

"That's a law enforcement officer's most important job: to tell the truth," Newberry says.

We learned that the good interviewer doesn't interrupt when a subject is talking. He doesn't finish the subject's sentences; he listens to what the subject is saying rather than planning which question he is going to ask next. He keeps an open mind -- particularly to the possibility that a person may not be lying.

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