Copping to the Truth
It's not clear what propelled Gregory Poyser to seek a career in law enforcement. Maybe he had a strong desire to help others. Maybe he wanted to strap on a gun and be near the action. And maybe, just maybe, he had an unconscious desire to turn himself in.
By late last summer, the 22-year-old Poyser was well on his way to becoming a Miami-Dade cop. He'd already filled out an application, taken the civil service exam, and gone to an orientation class where he signed up for the polygraph test the police department requires all applicants to pass. On August 30 Poyser arrived at Slattery Associates, a private firm in a corporate park off Route 826 that does truth-testing for the P.D. There he met Dennis Moore, who was a polygraph examiner with the U.S. Coast Guard for twenty years, and since 1998 for Slattery. Moore started with a lengthy pre-interview session, meant to relax the subject and get him acquainted with the process.
Moore ended up asking a series of questions, among them "Have you ever committed any crimes?" He then went down a list. One of the crimes on the list was robbery. Poyser hesitated, and in those few seconds his career ambitions wilted. When pressed, he said something to the effect of "There was a robbery, but I promised not to talk about that."
"I figured I'd come back to that one," Moore deadpans.
Then the examiner wrapped a blood-pressure cuff around Poyser's arm, clipped some contacts to his fingers to measure degrees of sweating, taped two breathing tubes to his chest to record breathing patterns, and proceeded to ask a few hours' worth of questions.
At the end of the exam Moore told Poyser the test showed some deception. Moore explained that the machine doesn't quantify the deception -- in other words it doesn't distinguish stealing a candy bar at age eleven from committing a murder. So Moore says he suggested that if Poyser wanted to, he could write out a statement explaining why the machine might indicate he was not being fully forthright. "Why don't you write what you know about the robberies and that will help explain the test to the department," Moore recalls telling Poyser.
To his amazement Poyser penned a complete confession to two unsolved armed robberies in December of 1999, one at a Denny's restaurant on U.S. 1, and another two weeks later at a Papa John's pizzeria, also on U.S. 1. (Thus giving the department two very tangible reasons why Poyser shouldn't be a cop: evidence of criminal tendencies and acute stupidity.)
Poyser handed in his statement, then asked eagerly when the department would get the test results. Apparently he was anxious to start at the academy. Moore told him the department would contact him in about a week.
The cops contacted him all right. Two weeks later Poyser was called in, ostensibly to go over some last-minute questions on his application. When Poyser arrived at MDPD headquarters in the western part of the county, robbery detectives confronted him with security videotapes of the Denny's heist. Police say Poyser ID'd himself in the video taking cash from a terrified counterworker while his accomplice held a gun. "On 9-17-2002 the def., post Miranda, confessed his participation in this incident," his arrest report states. Poyser is charged with two counts of armed robbery.
"This is not unusual," says George Slattery, owner of Slattery Associates, a burly ex-New Jersey state trooper who's been coaxing people to tell the truth for 40 years. "We've had people confess to all kinds of crimes -- robberies, stabbings, shootings." Hundreds, he says, if not thousands have done this while applying for jobs -- as police officers.
It goes back to a well-known psychological phenomenon called "the compulsion to confess," Slattery explains. "People who commit crimes often have a compulsion to confess, or divest themselves of the psychological pressure of withholding information of the wrongdoing. We provide the right kind of environment for that. People basically want to get things off their chest if you provide them with the right vehicle."
Slattery and his son Brian, who is also a polygraph examiner, take seats at a conference table at their office and rifle through a stack of written statements they've collected to prove the point: On September 25 of this year, one applicant to a local police department (confidentiality agreements prevented Slattery Associates from identifying the agencies involved) ended up writing a statement in which he confessed to burglarizing about $2000 from a high school, credit card theft, and beating someone with a stick until they had a seizure. Last April another police officer candidate confessed in writing to selling dime bags of cocaine from behind the counter of the bar where he worked. About three years ago, a man applying to be a corrections officer confessed to selling between $900,000 and $1 million worth of coke, as well as numerous robberies. The polygraph examiners don't know how many get arrested as a result of their confessions. The test results are handed in to the department and the examiners are done.
Brian Slattery stresses that the statements are naturally arrived at by the subject. There is no coercion or trickery involved. The subjects are told that the test will detect untruthfulness with absolute certainty, and that a police department will not hire someone with unresolved deception, so they might as well come clean. "We're not there to dig up dirt to prevent them from being hired. We afford them the opportunity to explain in detail" events in their lives that might need to be put in context, he says. As if to underscore this point, he displays the written comments the subjects are asked to provide about their experience. Poyser wrote that he was treated "great." The guy who confessed to selling drugs at the bar wrote, "Everything went according to my expectations," and the high school heister wrote, "I was treated great!"
Brian Slattery adds that they tell each subject, "It doesn't matter what you've done wrong in your life; it's whether or not you withhold information here today that will affect the results of this test."
Something Gregory Poyser took quite literally.
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