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City police buy high-tech device to help detect lies

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Call it high-tech truth serum -- a suitcase-sized metal box that its inventor says can tell fact from fiction by simply measuring stress in a person's voice.

The Florida entrepreneur proclaims his device, which he touts as a replacement for the polygraph, is a "revolutionary breakthrough in truth verification" and tells police: "You can solve your crime rate in your office."

The Baltimore Police Department just bought one for $7,700, and is spending $3,000 for a one-week course to train three detectives.

Polygraph operators, however, vehemently oppose the device, calling it a gimmick used to illicit a confession rather than a diagnostic tool to seek the truth. The FBI said testing has been inconclusive.

But police departments seem to love the device, even though its data cannot be used in court. Courts also do not generally accept polygraph results as evidence. The Prince George's County police use the Computer Voice Stress Analyzer. Baltimore County is considering it. The District of Columbia has six. The company says more than 100 departments nationwide use it.

Police in Baltimore said they checked other departments -- in Indiana, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia -- and heard nothing but accolades.

"From what I've seen, I'm impressed," said Maj. Wendell M. France, commander of the crimes against persons section, which includes the homicide unit. "We convinced the commissioner it is something we should try. We're moving slowly at first."

Eric Holden, chairman of the American Polygraph Association, says Baltimore is wasting its money.

"It's the biggest sham in my judgment that has ever become introduced in the lie detection field," he said from Dallas. "It's like saying we have a new device to perform brain surgery, and all you have to do is take a three-day course and you can become an expert." He said it takes 10 weeks to train a polygraph operator.

The FBI says it tested the stress analyzer in its labs in Quantico, Va. "We do not have any conclusive studies regarding its validity," said Paul Bresson, an FBI spokesman in Washington. "We have seen it. We have tested it. We do not use it."

The accuracy of polygraph tests has been debated for more than 60 years. While field studies have found that the test accurately identifies people who lie 70 percent to 98 percent of the time, research done for Congress showed that it incorrectly finds truthful people deceptive up to 75 percent of the time.

Charles Humble, the president of the National Institute for Truth Verification, based in West Palm Beach, Fla., started the business in 1986.

The device measures inaudible changes in the voice -- called "micro-tremors" -- caused by stress, Mr. Humble said. It works simply by having a person talk into a microphone. Results are instantly printed out in graph form. By studying the charts of stress patterns corresponding to an answer -- usually 'yes' or 'no' -- a trained user can sort out truth from a lie, Mr. Humble says.

And unlike a traditional polygraph -- which measures variations in the central nervous system, such as heartbeat and pulse -- the stress analyzer doesn't require wires.

Major France said it can take a month to schedule a polygraph test, and the subject must be sober and pass a routine medical exam. The stress analyzer can be used anytime, even on telephone and years-old tape-recorded conversations, the company says.

Mr. Humble said the company only sells the stress analyzer to law enforcement agencies, but the literature provided says the device is "now being used by industrial and retail companies" as well as lawyers to screen their clients.

While the size of the device and the need to monitor a printout make it difficult to interview somebody while secretly using the analyzer, Mr. Humble said the conversation could be taped and later screened for truth verification.

Major France said that if a suspect or witness in a case agrees to a tape-recorded interview, he sees no problem later using the analyzer without the person's knowledge.

"I find that a little troublesome," said Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "You know you're being tape-recorded, but you don't expect someone is going to be charting out your voice pattern."

The device is another technical tool that the city police intend to use. In May, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced that officers would test a new imaging device that can look through clothing and see whether someone is carrying a gun.

The company building the stress analyzer insists that it works, based on anecdotes collected from agencies.

One is from the Cocoa, Fla., Police Department, which has 63 officers serving a community of 18,000 residents. In an interview, Chief Dick Masten said that last year, a detective solved a 1988 homicide by running an old interview tape through the analyzer and detecting several apparent lies. Upon being reinterviewed, the suspect confessed.

In Washington, police Inspector Wyndell Watkins, former head of the homicide unit, said detectives have solved dozens of cases using the analyzer, and cleared several officers of wrongdoing.

But Mr. Holden, of the polygraph association, said Baltimore is making a "terrible mistake." He said lie-detection is a science, and while a polygraph may seem cumbersome, it is that way for a reason. "There is no fast easy gimmick known to man that is going to be a solution for detecting the truth. I don't care if its a Ouija board or a Xerox machine. You put a device down on a table and tell the subject they are lying and that enhances your confession rate."

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