If you have never heard the names Fred E. Inbau and John E. Reid before, do not be surprised, they are not household names. However, their names are starting to come up more and more in recent news thanks to a controversial technique they invented back in the 1930s, and the false confessions that have come about because of it.
The technique in question, called the Reid Technique, was created to help companies such as AutoZone investigate suspected theft by employees, but it has led to quite a few false confessions, and has caused the companies in question to come under fire.
It is estimated that $16 billion a year is lost by employers due to internal theft. However, employers are advised to be extra careful how vigilantly they pursue that money, as they stand to lose much more if they are brought to court by their previous employees.
Talking about his recent civil lawsuit filed against his previous employer AutoZone, Chris Polston explains how the Reid Technique works.
First, he says that the investigator sat Polston down in an isolated room and began speaking as if “we’d known each other for 10 years and were at a barbecue.” According to Polston, things changed quickly, and before he knew it there was a piece of paper in front of him waiting for his signature, stating that he was not recording the conversation.
Immediately after signing it, the investigator began repeatedly making accusations about stolen auto parts, despite Polston’s insistence that he had no idea about them. The interrogation devolved further according to Polston, who says “it just became a battle between me and him of me saying no and him saying yes, me saying no, him saying yes. I told him I had to go; I have to get my wife to work. He said you’re not allowed to leave. He said, if I confessed, he could promise I wouldn’t lose my job, wouldn’t be charged, everything would be O.K.”
The investigator then said he was calling the authorities, walked to the other side of the store to make a call, then came back and asked Polston if he had anything to add before the police came to arrest him. Imagining that he would never be able to explain what had happened to his family, he decided that he had to give the investigator something, so he confessed to not paying for a candy bar and soda.
Polston states that the investigation was immediately over, he was escorted from the store and stripped of his employee keys, and then fired for taking the candy bar and soda, which his manager later confessed was given to Polston.
Since 2000, AutoZone has been the subject of over a dozen lawsuits related to false confessions, but National Retail Federation vice president Rich Mellor says that he does not think there are a high number of false confession cases in retail businesses. According to Mellor, he states that loss prevention departments know quite well that they must be careful when using methods of coercion, and that retailers do not normally talk to the press, leaving only one side of the story told.
Whether or not that is the case, lawyers and psychologists have warned that the Reid Technique could easily be used incorrectly, leading to false confessions.
There have been numerous cases in the last 15 years alone. Joaquin Robles sued AutoZone after they used similar interrogation techniques on him and fired him for stealing money which was later found (he was awarded $7.5 million which AutoZone appealed and had reduced to under $700,000). Travis Kell was fired for falsifying an internal audit after he accused his manager of making racist remarks. In his suit, it came to light that he had been framed by another loss-prevention manager, and was awarded $1.4 million, which AutoZone is appealing as well.
After being fired for the candy bar theft, Mr. Polston said that he sat in his car and cried, overwhelmed by a sense of betrayal. “It changed my whole perspective about everything,” Polston said. “I was raised to give trust to people until they broke it. But I’m not going to raise my kids that way. I don’t want them to be blindsided like I was.” His suit is expected in Harris County District Court in July, and he is seeking $300,000 to $400,000 in damages.
Polston said that he is looking forward to the court date. He says “this time I’m going to get to say how I feel, without some loss-prevention person talking down to me and belittling me. I’m going to get to say my side of the story.”