Editor's Note: In the opening paragraph of this column, Matt Smith listed theoretical examples of "uncomfortable questions" that could elicit a physical response. Smith did not actually pose those questions to polygraph examiner Patrick Coffey, nor did Coffey ask his test subjects any such questions. SF Weekly regrets any confusion.
The way polygraph examiners such as Patrick Coffey see it, when a person is pressed with truly uncomfortable questions — Are you racist? A dissembler? A bully? — beads of sweat will appear on his palms. His breathing will quicken, or just as suspiciously, slow down. His heart will beat faster. His blood pressure will rise, and the sensors strapped to this deceptive person's body will feed results to a computer armed with an algorithm that will show he's a liar.
According to popular advice on cheating the lie detector, the key to passing is to stay calm. No matter how uncomfortable you are, breathe normally. Pretend you're in an ordinary school exam; remember mind over matter.
Coffey doesn't believe the polygraph can be easily beat. It requires remaining preternaturally calm while being asked tough questions. And that's how I would describe his demeanor when I recently cross-examined him about his views on Muslims. When I asked him whether he was a bigot, I could feel my own throat tighten with nervousness. Coffey's radio baritone, however, continued with the same even patter he might have used to recite a recipe.
"Don't try to back me into that kind of corner," he said. "I grew up with an Asian mother. I learned the Vietnamese language from a very early age."
I came away from listening to Coffey's mellifluous voice thinking he may have been telling what he considered to be the truth. Few people, after all, believe themselves to be prejudiced. But I wondered whether this professional lie detector might be fooling himself.
Last week I wrote about how the San Francisco Police Department still uses a lie detector to screen recruits, despite the fact that scientists have roundly debunked its effectiveness. Using such a discredited method to help choose cops, I noted, could disqualify the best prospects and give a passing grade to skillful liars.
I also noted that Coffey, whom the city paid $81,463 during the last fiscal year to conduct the screening tests from his Burlingame consultancy, believes scientific criticism of his favored method is unfair.
But what I didn't describe is what a peculiar choice the SFPD has made in selecting Coffey as the one who would conduct what scientists agree is a hit-or-miss method for determining whether aspiring cops are truthful when they say they should be trusted with guns.
In the spring of 2005, on www.antipolygraph.org, a Web site dedicated to scientific debunking of the polygraph, Coffey wrote of prominent polygraph critic George Maschke, a Ph.D. linguist who works as a Farsi translator in the Hague, "I doubt even without the polygraph that you could now meet security criteria to serve in any capacity given your choice to 'work' in socialist Holland, which like France is losing it's idenity [sic] to Islamic Immigration there." In a later post on Maschke's site, Coffey wrote, "George should stay in Holland or some other Socialist nation. He is apparently more comfortable in a nation like that, or France, which has lost its/their respective identities to massive Arab/Islamic immigration."
Maschke said that during 2005 Coffey lurked on his Web site for some time under various aliases, making caustic comments. "He basically became quite a troll on our message board, and I eventually banned him, and he came back under a variety of monikers," Maschke said, adding, "He's got a lot of biases coming to the table. To have someone with that mentality screening police applicants is inappropriate."
I asked Coffey about his statements. He said he was merely making a casual observation about changing times: "The Holland or France that you or I might have visited in our childhood might not be the Holland we would have visited years ago," so Maschke "may have a different perspective than the average man on the street here, because of his interaction with these people on a personal and professional level. Compared with the man on the street here in the U.S., what he feels is reality might not be that of the average person here."
I have no specific evidence that Coffey's feelings about Muslims, Arabs, or even Dutch people have tainted the way he screens applicants for the SFPD. But the issue should be raised because the statistical accuracy of a polygraph exam, according to a 2002 National Academy of Sciences study, is only slightly better than random guesses in identifying potential liars or truth-tellers. This large accuracy gap leaves plenty of room for bias.
"The potential for discrimination is certainly there," said David Faigman, a UC Hastings law professor who served on the National Academy of Sciences polygraph panel. "What we do know is there's a high degree of subjectivity and a high degree of human interaction relevant to the test. When you have those two things, you have to be concerned that bias or prejudice manifests itself."
Iftekhar Hai, president of the United Muslims of America Interfaith Alliance, found it outrageous that a screener of police recruits would express what Hai considers anti-Muslim views. "I think that's just such an uninformed statement," he said. "It's a classical case of ignorance. In the United States itself, there are seven million Muslims.
"The number two man at the Department of Homeland Security is a Muslim," Hai said, pointing to Arif Alikhan, assistant secretary for the Office of Policy Development. "To collectively put the 1.2 billion Muslims in the world into that narrow-minded interpretation is sheer stupidity. I think that kind of analysis is a buzzword for bigotry and hatred."
Coffey again rejected the idea that he's a bigot. "I give up my time to help people who are indigent and who are tortured. I do it pro bono quite often," he said, in reference to an aspect of his private lie-detector practice in which he assists U.S. attorneys representing asylum visa applicants.
At one point, I even thought I may have caught Coffey lying about his own practices. Imagine: an SFPD polygraph screener with his pants on fire!
In 2002, Coffey was working as a private investigator and was hired by a San Francisco clothing store. The store's tailor, Jesus Guerrero, claimed he had been sexually harassed by a salesman, Reggie Myrick, who denied the accusation. Coffey's job was to determine who was telling the truth. Guerrero sued Coffey, claiming the then–private eye performed a voice-stress-analysis exam on him without permission.
Coffey told me several times during two interviews that he has never used voice stress analysis, which he believes to be less scientific than the polygraph. He said he merely interviewed Guerrero, who mistakenly believed Coffey had performed a voice stress analysis on him.
I was unable to reach Guerrero or his attorney for their version of events. But I did find Myrick.
Coffey "asked me a bunch of questions from years back, up to current events, and I answered truthfully. He said I passed," the salesman said. "My body wasn't hooked up to a lie detector. It was a computer voice analysis test."
Whether Coffey actually performed voice stress analysis, or merely made it seem like he did, the polygrapher did end up paying a $10,000 settlement to Guerrero, according to court records.
In the end, I didn't go away convinced I knew the truth. And I have a feeling I wouldn't have, even if I'd hooked Coffey up to a hit-or-miss lie detector machine.
Coffey says he is a former intelligence officer with the Navy and U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. Despite his inscrutability, and irrespective of whether he's as bigoted as his Internet statements might suggest, he seems to have the mindset of an old Cold Warrior, seeing enemy sympathizers behind doors where others might not, and friends in unlikely places.
Along with his work aiding U.S. attorneys for purported victims of foreign torture, Coffey boasts that he's helped train the state security corps of two authoritarian dictators. He describes having taught polygraph techniques to the secret service detail of Qaboos bin Said al Said, the sultan, prime minister, and foreign minister of Oman, whose regime, The New York Times reported last May, "is taking the familiar approach of authoritarian states in the Middle East, relying on security services and restrictive laws to silence and frighten the people."
Coffey says he also has provided polygraph training to the state security and intelligence services of Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, emir of Qatar. According to Amnesty International, Sheik Hamad oversees a regime where "allegations of torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment continue to be reported."
Coffey was proud enough of his Qatar work that he sent me a photo of himself with one of his Qatari hosts — which suggests, at the very least, that he isn't bigoted against Arabs and Muslims who happen to be fee-paying sultans or emirs. What concerns me is how he perceives ordinary Arabs and Muslims with their minds set on a career with the San Francisco Police Department.