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Ohio police departments talk polygraphs: Hiring and investigations

Safe to say it’s not like Hollywood


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By Kaylee Remington

CLEVELAND — In Hollywood, polygraph machines help dogged detectives sort through the lies and get to the truth. For Northeast Ohio law enforcement agencies, the reality is much different.

Many agencies have someone trained to use a polygraph. But polygraphs have extremely limited use in criminal trials, so they’re mostly used during the hiring process or other internal matters within police departments in the Greater Cleveland area.

Police departments in Bay Village, Brooklyn, Brook Park, Rocky River and Strongsville are among those that use polygraphs solely for hiring purposes when interviewing a candidate.

For example, Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Office detectives use polygraphs to help Brook Park hire police officers and for investigative purposes, such as clearing people’s names from investigations or determining if they are involved in any way, Patrolman Trent Brown said. Strongsville also uses an independent polygrapher for potential police officer candidates.

The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation has examiners on staff who conduct polygraph exams for pre-employment purposes, and for criminal investigations as a service for local law enforcement.

Polygraphs can be used as part of an investigation, but the evidence can’t be used at trial, spokesman Steve Irwin said. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled in the 1978 decision State v. Seoul that polygraphs were only admissible in court if the prosecutor, defense attorney and the judge would stipulate to allowing the defense to submit the test during trial.

The accuracy of polygraphs has been controversial through the years. There are “few good studies that validate the ability of polygraph procedures to detect deception,” according to the American Psychological Association. However, the American Polygraph Association argues that polygraphs can be used in a number of ways, including offender management, criminal investigations and hiring.

It’s safe to say that polygraphs can be controversial due to the fact that they are not 100% reliable, said Ed Favre, who retired from his job as a Lakewood police sergeant in 2011. Favre is the secretary for the Ohio Association of Polygraph Examiners and has worked privately as a polygrapher, including with the Cuyahoga County Probation Department and private attorneys.

[MORE: The value of asking a suspect to take a polygraph]

“It’s most definitely not the accuracy of fingerprints or DNA,” he said in an interview with and The Plain Dealer. “They (polygraphs) can be manipulated. There are anti-polygraph associations out there and they teach people how to beat the polygraph. We’ve done seminars on how to identify when someone is trying to manipulate the process.”

There are times when a polygraph may show a false positive or a false negative, Favre said.

Polygraphs in criminal investigations

The Westlake Police Department generally uses polygraphs to hire new police officers and other employees. But detectives occasionally use them in criminal investigations, Capt. Gerald Vogel said.

Face-to-face interviews are an important part of any investigation. The information a detective gleans from an interview can be used with other evidence collected in the case, Vogel said.

Using a polygraph can increase a detective’s confidence in the information they’re obtaining during an interview, he said.

“It really just enhances the interview of persons involved in the case and can help include or exclude a person to help with the direction the investigator is taking,” he said. “A polygraph is simply a tool that can show candor.”

Many Cuyahoga County police departments ask an outside law enforcement agency, such as the BCI, to conduct polygraph exams when needed.

“If we desired a polygraph for an investigation, we would send the person to BCI to have it done,” Parma police Lt. Dan Ciryak said.

Parma also hires a security consultant to conduct polygraph exams as part of its hiring process, Ciryak said.

In neighboring Parma Heights, the police department has never actually administered polygraph exams, but has used them on rare occasions, Detective Adam Sloan said.

“In order for us to use a polygraphs examination we would have to seek out another agency to have them perform the exam,” he said. “One agency that has performed an examination for us was the FBI for a double homicide trial, but we were unable to use that information during the trial.”

Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department offers polygraph services

The Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department also uses polygraphs during investigations and for hiring, and offers its polygraphers to any Cuyahoga County law enforcement agencies who need them, Lt. Miguel Carballo said.

“Any agency has the ability to make a formal request for a polygraph upon approval,” Carballo said.

The sheriff’s department currently employs two polygraphers, Sgt. Steve Bartczak said. They’re typically asked to assist with administrative investigations, criminal investigations and applicant screenings.

In order to become a sheriff’s deputy, candidates must take a polygraph exam as part of their background check, Carballo said.

Polygraphs also are used during investigations. For example, investigators may want to use them to verify the accuracy of a statement given during an interview.

“We do ask them (interviewee) if they would like to participate in the polygraph,” Caraballo said. “We strictly use polygraph.”

Some departments prefer different tech to polygraphs

The Fairview Park Police Department does not use polygraph exams as a common practice, Patrolman Matt McIntyre said. Neither do police departments in Bedford, Broadview Heights, Cleveland Heights and Lyndhurst.

Berea police Lt. Tom Walk said in the past five years the department has rarely used a polygraph in any aspect, nor has it ever had a polygraph examiner working for the department.

Some police departments have eschewed the use of polygraph machines in favor of another technology such as a Computer Voice Stress Analysis. The South Euclid Police Department uses the CVSA almost exclusively for its hiring process, Chief Joe Mays said.

However, CVSAs have also been criticized for their accuracy. The National Institute of Justice cited a 2003 study that found the average accuracy rate of CVSAs in detecting deception regarding drug use “was approximately 50 percent—about as accurate as flipping a coin.” The research also found that someone might be deterred from lying if they think they’ll be proven false.

“Both CVSA and polygraph tests are subject to interpretation and failure which is why neither are blindly admissible in court,” Mays said. “We never use it (CVSA) as the sole means to rule out or rule in a candidate. Rather, it is only one tool in the toolbox that is used to try and validate the truthfulness of a candidate.”

The Shaker Heights Police Department also uses the CVSA for the hiring process, Commander John Cole said. Parma Heights police, University Heights police and the Lorain County Sheriff’s Office use this device as well.

“Our CVSA’s are used for pre-employment screening and for investigative purposes, such as verifying a statement(s) made by an accused individual,” Sloan, of Parma Heights, said. “CVSA’s are not admissible in court unless the defense counsel stipulates to the information gathered from the exam. This is the same for polygraph examinations.”

East Cleveland police use the CVSA machine primarily for pre-employment screening, Chief Scott Gardner said. In some cases, they will use it for criminal investigations.

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