Coopertown, Tennessee: Speed Traps, Racist Police, and the History and Misuse of the Polygraph

     August Vollmer, the progressive chief of the Berkeley, California Police Department from 1909 to 1932, was one of the first police reformers to write about how traffic enforcement puts a stain on police-community relations. Vollmer …

     August Vollmer, the progressive chief of the Berkeley, California Police Department from 1909 to 1932, was one of the first police reformers to write about how traffic enforcement puts a stain on police-community relations. Vollmer believed that municipal traffic ordinances are best enforced by non-sworn, civilian personnel. He would have found the idea of a speed trap appalling.

     Prior to 2006, if you drove over the speed limit in Coopertown, Tennessee, a town of 4,000 30 miles northwest of Nashville, you had a good chance of getting a ticket. If you were an Hispanic, a soldier from Fort Campbell across the line in Kentucky, or an out-of-towner, it was almost certain you'd get caught in this notorious speed trap. (One-third of the town's revenue came from speeding tickets.)

     In 2006, the National Motorists Association designated Coopertown, Tennessee as one of the most "blatant examples of speed traps in the country." That year, the county prosecutor, feeling pressure from outraged merchants and others in the community who felt the speed trap hurt the town and corrupted the police, accused Mayor Danny Crosby of not only running a ticket-issueing racket, but targeting Hispanics, blacks, and other groups of people.

     The local prosecutor failed to find a judge willing to remove the mayor from office, but not long after his attempt, citizens voted Crosby out of office. While the speed trap went out with the mayor, the town continued to be hit by one police scandal after another. From 2006 to 2012, there seemed to be a new police chief every year, and periods when the town didn't have a police force.

     In November 2012, when Police Chief Shane Sullivan took office, the 39-year-old announced his plan to use the polygraph as a pre-employment measure to weed-out job candidates who were racists. Chief Sullivan's well-intentioned hiring policy reflects his basic misunderstanding of the polygraph instrument's capabilities and proper use.

A Short History of the Polygraph

     The polygraph was invented in 1921 by Dr. John Larsen, a 27-year-old University of California Berkeley medical student with a Ph.D. in physiology. Dr. Larson worked as a part-time police officer at the Berkeley Police Department under Chief August Vollmer. Larson had read a 1908 book called On The Witness Stand by the Harvard psychiatrist, Hugo Munsterberg who had been searching for a method of scientific lie detection since the turn of the century.

     In his chapter "The Traces of the Emotion," Dr. Munsterberg wrote that three physiological events take place whenever a person lies. First, the liar's blood pressure and heart beat increase; second, there are respiratory alterations; and third, telling a lie chances the person's galvanic skin response, or GSR. To measure GSR, Dr. Munsterberg used a galvanometer that picked-up variations in the body's resistance to electricity. (Munsterberg found that when the brain is excited emotionally, the individual's sweat glands alter the body's resistance to electricity.)

     In 1921, Chief Vollmer asked his "college cop" to fashion a lie detection instrument detectives could use to detect deception in the people they interrogate. After working several weeks on the project, Dr. Larson informed Vollmer that he had rigged an apparatus that could detect truth and deception, an instrument he called the polygraph.

     The cumbersome tangle of rubber hoses, wires, and glass tubing was five feet long, two and a half feet high, and weighed thirty pounds. The device could be taken apart and moved from one place to another, but it took an hour to set up.

     Larson's instrument advanced Munsterberg's technique in four ways. The polygraph recorded the physiological responses on a continuous graph while the subject was being questioned. This was an improvement over the technique of asking a question then taking the examinee's blood pressure. The second advantage involved the ability to adjust the instrument in order to control such variables as high blood pressure or extreme nervousness. Larson's invention also produced a tangible and permanent record of test results that could be later analyzed by other experts. And finally the polygraph detected and recorded the subject's breathing patterns in addition to blood pressure and pulse rate.

     In the spring of 1921, John Larson tested the polygraph on Chief Vollmer and members of the Berkeley Police Department. The results of these experiments convinced Vollmer that Larson had invented a device that would revolutionize the art and science of criminal investigation. Larson, as the department's polygraph examiner, began using the instrument to solve a series of petty theft cases at the University of California.

     Today, for a polygraph result to be accurate, the instrument (vastly more sophisticated that Larson's invention), has to be in good working order. Moreover, the examiner must be properly trained and experienced in question formation and line chart interpretation. (Police polygraph examiners have to fight against their own bias.) Subjects have to be willing participants in the process, not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, be obese, retarded, or mentally ill. People who are very old or under fourteen do not make reliable polygraph subjects.

     Polygraph tests that include questions that do not call for factual answers will not be reliable. In Coopertown, Tennessee, Chief Sullivan's idea of using the technique to screen job applicants who are racist won't work because the instrument cannot accurately determine if a subject is lying about a state of mind. It's too subjective. There are, for example, different definitions and degrees of racism, and an  examinee might not recognized the trait in himself.

     Bob Peters, a spokesperson for the American Polygraph Association, in addressing Chief Sullivan's polygraph program, recommended that the examiners only asked job candidates about factual matters. Have you ever smoke marijuana? Questions like that.

     Chief Sullivan, in an effort to staff his department with officers who are not racists, should have considered conducting pre-employment background investigations. While this approach is more costly and time consuming, the results are more reliable. No pre-employment screening technique, however, is fool-proof, and law enforcement work has a way of changing the way a person thinks about a lot of things. The job also drives some people a little crazy.