Military and Police

Are Polygraph Examiners Eliminating Qualified Law Enforcement Candidates?

“We don’t know how many good people we lose, and we don’t know how many bad people have gotten through and haven’t gotten caught…”

Liar, liar, pants on fire! is the rhyme I heard as a kid. As a policeman, I often had that jingle in mind as I watched the squirm of suspects skirting the truth. That is a tired fact among the criminal culture. Yet another demographic in which integrity is tested is law enforcement candidates.

Prospective police applicants are subjected to polygraphs to measure the honesty of their candidacy, and the whole idea of being fastened to a lie detector machine is enough to make nerves fray. Even when being truthful, nervousness could potentially eliminate candidates. Is that happening? Are polygraphs missing the mark? Is something nefarious going on?

Polygraphy—the measurement of stress responses via human physiology such as blood pressure, skin conductivity, pulse rate, and respiration during questioning while hooked up to a lie detector machine—is often referred to as a pseudoscience: a belief or practice mistakenly viewed as being based on scientific method. An analysis in Psychology Today equates polygraph success to flipping a coin, offering a 50:50 chance at actually deciphering fact from fiction.

The Employee Polygraph Protection Act (EPPA) of 1988 prohibits private employers from using polygraph tests, with the exception of armored car services, security agencies, and alarm companies. However, federal, state, and local governments are exempt from EPPA and thus employ or contract polygraph examiners.

Applicants seeking security clearances for government roles in which classified information is the bread and butter encounter lie detector machines to ensure the integrity pool is pure. What about when a highly skilled squeaky-clean applicant competing for a federal agent position is deemed deceptive and untruthful after taking lie detector tests? That candidate is disqualified from further consideration and stigmatized on paper, halting eligibility with other agencies.

According to a Fox News report, that is exactly what happened when former US Marine Corps pilot David Kirk—who already had a security clearance—applied for a position as a federal pilot with US Customs and Border Protection. Stunned, Kirk described completing eight hours’ of polygraph testing with “my tail between my legs” when he had every reason to expect otherwise.

Surely a top secret security clearance and experiences as a military pilot flying then-President George W. Bush and Vice Presidents Dick Cheney and Joe Biden aboard US-owned helicopters carries some weight, right?

Not necessarily so. Some under the scope of polygraph examiners may be wronged by overzealous or ill-conceived interpretations, effectively eliminating qualified candidates from consideration. A comprehensive study by distinguished researchers at the National Academy of Sciences dubbed it “Tradeoffs in Interpretation,” particularly denoting how candidates vying for national security positions sometimes are unjustly bumped out by misguided polygraph results, also known as “false positives.” The study also covers “pro-polygraph bias,” lending credence to profound allegations made by Senator Jeff Flake (R–AZ).

Reported in a Los Angeles Times piece, Sen. Flake unambiguously contended that CBP polygraph examiners are failing potential federal agent applicants to justify their own existence, effectively blacklisting candidates, which results in a stigmatizing “scarlet letter” causing disinterest from other government employers. In effect, otherwise qualified candidates are haunted by baseless polygraph findings.

“There seems to be no good explanation, and when we hear so many anecdotal stories, it starts to look like a trend where they feel like they have to fail them, a certain number,”

Sen. Flake analyzed.

“It makes you angry that people would be put through that.”

Perhaps those responsible for auditing law enforcement candidates may need auditing themselves.

As Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General John Roth said in an interview with the Washington Post’s Federal Eye section,

“We are the internal affairs police for the largest police agency in the country.”

Hopefully, that includes scrutiny of its cadre of polygraph examiners.

A report in Bloomberg centered on an expert polygraph practitioner, Charles Honts, whose candid discussion claims,

“Depending on where you set your threshold, you either miss most of the spies or you cast suspicion on tens of thousands of innocent people. Sometimes you do both.”

“We don’t know how many good people we lose, and we don’t know how many bad people have gotten through and haven’t gotten caught,” Honts admitted.

“And we don’t know whether the polygraph is at all predictive of either of those outcomes.”

It appears there is some veracity to the idea that polygraphs purge otherwise good candidates from careers in law enforcement.

A House Divided Against Itself Will Not Stand

Well, if you are not nauseated by the oft-repeated phrase “the other side of the aisle,” then you likely do not own a TV or radio. Do not fret; that could be beneficial. Abraham Lincoln quoted Mark 3:25  “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” In the context we are discussing in this article, Senator Jeff Flake posited that polygraph examiners are intentionally failing law enforcement candidates to selfishly keep their jobs robust. The ol’ “job security” factor—with sinister connotations.

I do not know Senator Flake’s statement to be true, but I can attest that it is a bold accusation. It seems one would not aim an arrow (publicize) until one honed a viable target (truth). Nevertheless, Mr. Flake devised a plan and wrote a bill to help fill the thousands of Border Patrol officer vacancies. But there’s a curious catch. The gist of Sen. Flake’s Boots on the Border Act is to forego polygraph examinations for bona fide law enforcement and military veterans.

Sen. Flake covered his bill’s stated purpose on his blog page:

“It would help to be able to take people out of law enforcement and the military and say, ‘If you’ve already passed a lie detector test, it’s good, move ahead.’ This waiver we’re seeking: If you’ve been in law enforcement you’ve had to have passed a polygraph already.”

Although it appears Senator Flake has good intentions, his premise is not entirely accurate. Not all law enforcement agencies employ polygraphs in their hiring regimen. Generally, the military does not either. Even the largest municipal police department in America—the NYPD—refrains from using lie detector tests in its hiring rituals.

Similarly, ICE does not use polygraphs for its candidates. So, Sen. Flake’s bill aiming to streamline already vetted (polygraphed) applicants has its own flaws and will not supplant the polygraph deficiencies he lambasted. But, had Flake’s bill been passed earlier, it could’ve helped former US Marine pilot David Kirk. We can hope Mr. Kirk untucked his tail and secured a viable career with an entity valuing his service and intact integrity.

The FBI administers polygraph exams, and that is why Senator Flake has called upon FBI administration to weigh in regarding polygraph applications and to guide CBP in its hiring processes by using “best practices” against “flawed administration of CBP’s polygraph.”

Lowering Standards: The Other Fiasco

With the ongoing bandy about lowering standards (not using polygraphs) to hire thousands of federal agents swiftly (and, presumably, overcome the high failure rate), Senator Kamala Harris (D–CA) was curt and correct when she told The Wall Street Journal,

“If they actually can’t meet the standards, it doesn’t mean we lower the standards to get a larger number who can meet them.”

No argument out of me. However, I suggest focusing on the alleged miscues Professor Honts spoke about. He offered plenty of bewildering information pertaining to shot-in-the-dark targeting. It seems it is time to peel back the polygraph curtain to have a closer look.

In April 2017, CBP acting commissioner Kevin McAleenan told the journal that eliminating polygraph exams does not impact quality of candidates hired. McAleenan added that polygraph tests have “been identified as both a significant deterrent and a point of failure for CBP law enforcement applicants.”

I see contradiction in his suggestions. Do you?

And if the Border Patrol has been accused of notorious corruption (as The Atlantic has asserted), why feed into that by dropping polygraph testing for applicants? If lie detectors have 50:50 accuracy, half a chance is better than a zero chance of ensnaring an applicant with rogue tendencies.

CBP officials acknowledge the probability for border patrol agents to slip down the slippery slope and become drug cartel thugs and doormen allowing flow of illegal entry. The enormity of dirty money lining the pockets of tainted federal agents is real. Every scrutiny possible to combat such potential betrayal and false integrity has value, despite the perceived flaws.

As the Trump administration’s campaign promise to enforce national security (border wall and immigration deportations) is underway, the massive overall hiring of 15,000 federal agents is at stake if the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sidesteps polygraph testing for applicants. Still, polygraph examiners skirting ethics and rendering self-preserving, biased views must be considered.

The power and control, as well as the potential to discriminate against otherwise worldly candidates, cannot go unbridled. Conversely, if Sen. Flake’s assertion is on point, eliminating rogue polygraph examiners before they eliminate qualified cops warrants equal attention. There is profound irony in lie detectors lying about or misjudging those to whom they tether for truth.

Stephen Owsinski

Stephen Owsinski is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a researcher and writer. Follow Stephen on Twitter @uniformblue.

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