Cops Around the World Are Using An Outlandish Mind-Reading Tool
ProPublica reports that dozens of state and local agencies have purchased “SCAN” training from a company called LSI for reviewing a suspect’s written statements — even though there’s no scientific evidence that it works.
Local, state and federal agencies from the Louisville Metro Police Department to the Michigan State Police to the U.S. State Department have paid for SCAN training. The LSI website lists 417 agencies nationwide, from small-town police departments to the military, that have been trained in SCAN — and that list isn’t comprehensive, because additional ones show up in procurement databases and in public records obtained by ProPublica. Other training recipients include law enforcement agencies in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Israel, Mexico, the Netherlands, Singapore, South Africa and the United Kingdom, among others…
For Avinoam Sapir, the creator of SCAN, sifting truth from deception is as simple as one, two, three.
1. Give the subject a pen and paper.
2. Ask the subject to write down his/her version of what happened.
3. Analyze the statement and solve the case.
Those steps appear on the website for Sapir’s company, based in Phoenix. “SCAN Unlocks the Mystery!” the homepage says, alongside a logo of a question mark stamped on someone’s brain. The site includes dozens of testimonials with no names attached. “Since January when I first attended your course, everybody I meet just walks up to me and confesses!” one says. Another testimonial says “The Army finally got its money’s worth…” SCAN saves time, the site says. It saves money. Police can fax a questionnaire to a hundred people at once, the site says. Those hundred people can fax it back “and then, in less than an hour, the investigator will be able to review the questionnaires and solve the case.”
In 2009 the U.S. government created a special interagency task force to review scientific studies and independently investigate which interrogation techniques worked, assessed by the FBI, CIA and the U.S. Department of Defense. “When all 12 SCAN criteria were used in a laboratory study, SCAN did not distinguish truth-tellers from liars above the level of chance,” the review said, also challenging two of the method’s 12 criteria. “Both gaps in memory and spontaneous corrections have been shown to be indicators of truth, contrary to what is claimed by SCAN.”
In a footnote, the review identified three specific agencies that use SCAN: the FBI, CIA and U.S. Army military intelligence, which falls under the Department of Defense…
In 2016, the same year the federal task force released its review of interrogation techniques, four scholars published a study on SCAN in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. The authors — three from the Netherlands, one from England — noted that there had been only four prior studies in peer-reviewed journals on SCAN’s effectiveness. Each of those studies (in 1996, 2012, 2014 and 2015) concluded that SCAN failed to help discriminate between truthful and fabricated statements. The 2016 study found the same. Raters trained in SCAN evaluated 234 statements — 117 true, 117 false. Their results in trying to separate fact from fiction were about the same as chance….
Steven Drizin, a Northwestern University law professor who specializes in wrongful convictions, said SCAN and assorted other lie-detection tools suffer from “over-claim syndrome” — big claims made without scientific grounding. Asked why police would trust such tools, Drizin said: “A lot has to do with hubris — a belief on the part of police officers that they can tell when someone is lying to them with a high degree of accuracy. These tools play in to that belief and confirm that belief.”
SCAN’s creator “declined to be interviewed for this story,” but they spoke to some users of the technique. Travis Marsh, the head of an Indiana sheriff’s department, has been using the tool for nearly two decades, while acknowledging that he can’t explain how it works. “It really is, for lack of a better term, a faith-based system because you can’t see behind the curtain.”
Pro Publica also reports that “Years ago his wife left a note saying she and the kids were off doing one thing, whereas Marsh, analyzing her writing, could tell they had actually gone shopping. His wife has not left him another note in at least 15 years…”