The firm that officially licenses and teaches a controversial police interrogation method known as the “Reid technique” has filed a defamation lawsuit against Netflix and filmmaker Ava DuVernay for the portrayal of the method in the film When They See Us about the Central Park Five.
The Reid technique involves manipulative tactics that are meant to coerce a suspect into giving a confession. Many of its tools have become tropes in police procedural entertainment – mind-numbing repetition of the accusations, an officer beginning with the presumption of guilt and providing sometimes-fictional evidence proving that guilt, then pretending they’re an ally and minimising the crime. The process can be so psychologically and emotionally taxing that falsely admitting to a crime can feel like the only way to stop the agony.
In recent years, the Reid technique has faced an increasing amount of scrutiny, and in 2017 Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates, one of the main consulting organisations that teach the technique to law enforcement agencies, said it would no longer include it when training officers.
“Confrontation is not an effective way of getting truthful information,” Shane Sturman, Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates president and CEO, told the Marshall Project at the 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.”
A 2013 New Yorker investigation into police interrogation techniques reported that a quarter of the 311 people who had been exonerated through DNA testing had given false confessions. Five of those false confessions came from the men who were wrongly sentenced for sexual assault in the Central Park jogger case
So, of course, the Reid technique was integral to the story told in When They See Us. In the final episode of the series, during a scene set in 2002, Manhattan assistant D.A. Nancy Ryan’s partner rebukes a detective involved in the investigation saying, “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. That’s truth to you.”
The detective responds: “I don’t even know what the fucking Reid Technique is. Okay? I know what I was taught. I know what I was asked to do and I did it.”
The complaint, filed by John E. Reid and Associates filed on Monday in Illinois federal court, refutes that the technique has been universally rejected, and it asserts that the miniseries misrepresents the method.
As TechDirt points out, it’s true that the technique is not “universally” rejected since many police departments still use it, but the statement is hyperbole in a dramatised TV show.
Neither the firm nor Netflix responded to a Gizmodo request for comment. The lawsuit is pushing for an injunction that would make Netflix remove the reference to the technique or stop streaming the show. However, this lawsuit only seems to be bringing more attention to the technique that has contributed to the false imprisonment of countless people.
Featured image: Netflix