Netflix’s When They See Us has enjoyed a vaunted place in television culture, what with a 96 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes and a slew of Emmy nominations. But now, in a defamation suit filed by John E. Reid & Associates Inc., a Chicago-based law firm, Netflix and When They See Us creator Ava DuVernay are accused of misrepresenting the Reid Technique, a controversial interrogation process developed by the firm’s founder.
When They See Us refers to the Reid Technique as “universally rejected,” a depiction with which the law firm disagrees. The suit names a pivotal scene in the series finale, in which Manhattan assistant district attorney Nancy Ryan and a New York City detective converse about the case of the Central Park Five. The detective takes Ryan to task for her interrogation of the suspects: “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.”
Reid and Associates argue that this is a false representation of their method, which they claim eschews coercion, intimidation, and any denial of basic human rights. However, a number of law enforcement experts disagree.
The Reid Technique debuted in Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, a 1962 book by Fred Inbau, a law professor who ran one of the country’s first crime labs, and John E. Reid, a police officer turned polygraph expert and master interrogator. Its hallmarks will be familiar to any crime show fan: the claustrophobic interrogation room, the presumption of guilt, the gradual exertion of pressure on the suspect. According to the Marshall Project, the Reid Technique quickly became “a powerful folk wisdom, internalized by generations of police officers.”
Since the advent of DNA evidence, the Reid Technique has come under fire. According to the Innocence Project, about a third of prisoners who’ve seen their convictions overturned through DNA evidence confessed or incriminated themselves falsely, some of them under pressure or persuasion in the interrogation room. In 2017, one of the country’s largest police consulting firms, credited with training hundreds of thousands of police officers and federal investigators, parted ways with the method, arguing that it carries a high risk of producing false confessions.
“Confrontation is not an effective way of getting truthful information,” said Shane Sturman, president and CEO of Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates. “This was a big move for us, but it’s a decision that’s been coming for quite some 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.”
Saul Kassin, a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, applauded the decision.
“What Wicklander-Zulawski has realized is that once you start down the road of using trickery and deception, the misuses are inherent in that,” Kassin told Business Insider. “There are no clear lines of, ‘This is a good amount of trickery, and this isn’t.'”
Reid and Associates maintains that false confessions occur only when investigators step outside the method. Joseph Buckley, the firm’s president, told Business Insider that “False confessions are caused by investigators stepping out of bounds.”
In addition to seeking damages and profits, Reid and Associates have made a bid for When They See Us to be removed from Netflix until the offending line is removed or altered. Ava DuVernay has yet to comment.