Mount Carmel police using high-tech lie detector

Jeff Bobo • Mar 30, 2009 at 12:00 AM

MOUNT CARMEL — Police in Mount Carmel will be catching burglars and other small-town crooks using the same lie detector technology that the U.S. Department of Defense uses to catch terrorists.

It’s called Digital Voice Stress Analysis (DVSA), and four years ago the training and software cost just shy of $10,000.

Mount Carmel Police Chief Jeff Jackson said that’s why he was attempting to get several area departments to go in on the DVSA together at that time, but it was still too expensive to attract enough partners.

Today the entire DVSA package has come down to $1,500, and earlier this month Mount Carmel Police Department Lt. Kevin Ewing completed training and became a certified DVSA operator.

The DVSA doesn’t require the old the wires, tubes, needle, ink and graph paper of the old polygraph machines. There’s only a laptop computer, the software, and a little microphone that clips to the subject’s lapel.

Some larger departments in the region have had DVSA for years including the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office, Greene County and Morristown. Mount Carmel was welcome to request use of the equipment and operator from other departments at any time.

Jackson noted, however, it’s not feasible to schedule a suspect, an officer and the DVSA operator from another department to meet for every unsolved burglary on Mount Carmel’s books.

“It never fails that by the time we get a time scheduled to use a lie detector at another department, the suspect has come up with a reason why he can’t do it,” Jackson said. “Now, if we ask them and they say yes, we can say, ‘Have a seat right over here’ and administer the test right away.”

Ewing completed a 60-hour training course on the DVSA three weeks ago. Technically it’s not a lie detector, he said.

It’s a stress detector. It detects the stress associated with deception.

“The polygraph test relied on physiological changes in the body brought on by the stress of someone lying,” Ewing said. “That’s basically what this machine does. It picks out a very specific, involuntary physiological response, and that’s what this test measures. The bad guy can’t manipulate this physiological response, and that’s what makes this test more accurate than the standard polygraph or some of the other lie detectors.

“This doesn’t detect lies. It detects stress, and the examiner is the one who detects the lies. The machine can only tell us if there’s stress on certain responses.”

The MCPD agreed to try the DVSA out on this Times-News reporter, although Ewing noted beforehand that the results wouldn’t be the same as the results from a person facing criminal charges.

In the first test, the reporter was asked eight questions relating to his name, birthplace, mother’s birthplace, hobbies, and whether or not the reporter intended on lying. The reporter gave four false responses.

Stress levels in the responses were barely negligible, and some truthful responses showed more stress than lies. Ewing said that was to be expected from these circumstances, but the second test was more telling.

It was a word association test in which the reporter was showed a word on a flash card that he hadn’t previously seen and was asked to repeat the word into the DVSA. Inconsequential words such as blue, yellow and puppies revealed no stress in the response.

Ewing had also mixed in flashcards with the names of two of the reporter’s supervisors, as well as the word “deadline,” and all three of those responses revealed some stress.

“The reason (the first test) didn’t work is there is no jeopardy, and you know if you lie to me you’re still going to get to walk out of here at the end of the session,” Ewing said. “Innocent people are relaxed. Innocent people have nothing to hide. There is no deception in their voice, but I guarantee if you’re looking at six years in prison based on whether or not I catch you lying, the stress level is going to change. When they’re trying to hide something, that’s when they become stressed, and that triggers the physiological indicator that this machine measures.”

Ewing added, “The word association test is designed to trigger stress. Everyone gets at least a little stressed by their bosses, and for a reporter, deadlines are a stressful subject. In each of those responses there was stress detected by the machine.”

There is one group that the machine has trouble measuring, and that is people suffering from what’s called “guilt complex syndrome,” or people who feel guilty about crimes they didn’t commit. Ewing added, however, that certified DVSA operators are trained to identify those type people pretty quickly from their response readings, and make adjustments to the program to compensate for that syndrome.

Just like on TV police and court shows, in Tennessee lie detector tests aren’t admissible in court. Ewing said police use them as a tool to narrow down suspects, obtain information, locate evidence, and to give the innocent an opportunity to prove their innocence.

Failure to submit to a lie detector test upon request “raises a few eyebrows,” Ewing noted.

Mount Carmel is a small town with a small police force, but Ewing said he can foresee a lot of uses for the new lie detector.

“I can imagine the cases we would use the DVSA on are like burglaries and vandalism,” Ewing said. “We very rarely have any more serious crimes, but the burglaries and vandalism will keep me busy.”

Recommended for You

    Kingsport Times News Videos