Confessions – True or False?

Interrogation Room

by Karen Topakian

While listening to Terry Gross interview Ada DuVernay about her film “Central Park Five,” my ears perked up when she asked about the boys’ confessions.

Why did they “… agree to a confession that was not true, why they agreed to implicate themselves by saying that they did things that they didn’t do?” asked Gross.

DuVernay pushed back about the word “agreed.” She responded, “I mean, we’re talking about minors. We’re talking about minors who are in rooms alone with police officers who are aggressive, who have guns on their belts and badges, who were told to mind and to respect and to follow orders from….”

Gross posed a commonly asked question, “Why would you confess to something you hadn’t done?”

Most people would say they never would. They would stand up for themselves. Substantial evidence from the Innocence Project says otherwise.

I believe only people who have never been questioned by a police officer would ask this question.

In all fairness, I have never been interrogated by a police officer. But I have had more than my fair share of interactions of my own doing with them. The circumstances are quite different but nonetheless I am aware of a police officer’s power to intimidate and to coerce.

While preparing for committing acts of nonviolent direct action, I have received training that reinforces the need to act politely to the police but not speak to them without a lawyer present. I do not harbor any ill will towards them but I offer them nothing. I know I’m in the tiny minority of those who have received this training, which takes patience and practice to achieve.

But all the training in the world does not remove the anxiety and fear I feel when I’m interacting with police, especially when my freedom and well-being sit in their hands.

For example, once while I was leg shackled to a chair bolted to the floor two police officers read me my Miranda rights. They asked me to affirm I understood them and then check each one off on a piece of paper. I followed their directions.

One of the officers said I appeared “familiar” with the rights, insinuating that I had heard them before possibly under similar circumstances. I said nothing in response.

I wanted to say “Yes, I’ve heard them before from cops.” But I didn’t. (I also thought about saying, “I’ve watched enough episodes of “Law and Order.”)

Since they didn’t know anything about me, I didn’t see a reason to admit I had been arrested before. Without the training, I may have.

And I’m not a black boy. I’m a well-educated middle class white woman with all the unfair associated privilege who knew that a team of lawyers would defend me regardless of what I said.

But if I were a young person of color, I could only imagine how an interaction with armed police officers would feel and look.

Therefore, if you ever find yourself asking, “Why would someone confess to something they hadn’t done?” Change that question to, “How many confessions are falsely given because people feel intimidated, anxious and afraid?”



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