There is no question that teenagers like Marty Tankleff and the Central Park Five suffered enormous miscarriages of justice—having spent years in prison for confessing to crimes they didn’t commit. But their story is not unique. We know that teens in the U.S. are exposed to coercive and high-pressure interrogations in part because U.S. law rarely restricts interrogation methods based on the suspect’s age. Mounting scientific evidence has also revealed that teens are more prone to giving false confessions than adults—falling prey to high-pressure, manipulative, and deceptive interrogation techniques more often because they have less sophisticated reasoning abilities and are more susceptible to social influence. There has also been substantial research showing how coercive police interrogations can increase the risk of false confessions and wrongful conviction.
Our question was: Do teens who have experienced high-pressure interrogations or who have provided false confessions have negative perceptions of the police?
This question is important for a couple reasons. We know that how fair people think the judicial process is can influence how they view the police and their willingness to comply with the law. Asking this question can also help us understand how teens form perceptions of the legal system and police during this key developmental time period. Studies of individuals’ legal attitudes have mostly focused on adults, though legal attitudes are likely forming during childhood and adolescence. If we can understand what factors influence perceptions of the police and legal system earlier on, we may be better poised to encourage positive police-youth relations while hopefully also reducing the risk of false confessions and wrongful conviction among youth.
High-pressure interrogations that can lead to false confessions might change how youth view the police—not as truth seekers but as confession seekers.
In our study, we interviewed 193 incarcerated male juvenile offenders about how they were interrogated and asked them questions about how they viewed police and the courts. These were teens imprisoned for serious crimes, who we chose because they had considerable contact with the police as suspects. We wanted to identify which aspects of their experiences with police contributed to their perceptions (previous research has simply looked at whether youth have had contact with the police more generally). Specifically, we asked them about the extent to which they agreed with a variety of statements about the courts and police such as “The courts generally give everyone a fair trial” and “Police officers often unfairly harass high school kids.” We also asked them about their experience being interrogated as suspects—were they threatened or lied to?—and confessing to crimes they did and did not commit.
As we predicted, high-pressure interrogation experiences (defined as the number of interrogation tactics that they reported experiencing) and self-reported false confessions to police were associated with more negative perceptions of police. However, self-reported true confessions were not associated with youths’ perceptions of the police. Of importance, youths’ perceptions of the courts were unrelated to what they told us about their interrogation and confession experiences.
In other words, negative perceptions of police appeared to emerge not on the basis of whether youth had ever confessed to the police in the past but rather how they were treated during interrogations and whether they provided a false confession specifically.
Although conviction and punishment are likely set into motion by both true and false confessions, police behavior and the resultant legal consequences may be perceived by true confessors as more just because the confessor actually committed the crime(s). Also, youth may perceive true confessions as given more voluntarily, while those who have falsely confessed may believe that their confession was coerced and that it catalyzed their subsequent legal troubles. These findings suggest that the nature of police contact matters. High-pressure interrogations that can lead to false confessions might change how youth view the police—not as truth seekers but as confession seekers.
Currently, psychologically manipulative, deceptive, and high-pressure techniques are allowed with U.S. teens despite knowledge that youth are more vulnerable to succumbing to these techniques, even when they have not committed a crime.
Of course, we can’t make causal inferences. What we need next is a longitudinal study that follows youth from childhood to adolescence, which would allow for stronger directional claims. It is possible that teens who held more negative perceptions of the police may have experienced high-pressure interrogations because they made their negative attitudes about the police evident and this triggered more aggressive or coercive interrogations. Currently, psychologically manipulative, deceptive, and high-pressure techniques are allowed with U.S. teens despite knowledge that youth are more vulnerable to succumbing to these techniques, even when they have not committed a crime. What would happen if we took the riskier techniques off the table?
Our findings converge with other recent studies to suggest that reforming interrogation policies with young suspects should be a priority. During adolescence, many individuals experience their first police contact, especially as suspects to crimes. These experiences may have long-lasting effects, potentially influencing their adult attitudes and even whether they re-offend. Changing the way we interrogate youth could help us to avoid wrongful conviction and punishment, millions of dollars in settlements, continued crimes committed by the real perpetrators, and, as our study suggests, less negative perceptions of the police. In an attempt to improve police-youth relations and protect the vulnerability of youth, it may be time for a more developmentally-oriented approach to interrogation. There will likely be another Central Park Five without such change.