first_imgWhen leads dry up or the truth is murky, LAPD detectives end up here, on the fourth floor of downtown’s Parker Center, headquarters of the Polygraph Unit. In these tattered 10-by-10-foot rooms, lies were exposed that cracked a Manson murder case and opened a trail to a stolen $3.5million Stradivarius cello. Interrogators have pinned down child abusers and caught felons in their own fibs. In the end, few people can really lie. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREPettersson scores another winner, Canucks beat Kings“The pen is mightier than the sword. That is the case here,” said William Bergner, a veteran polygraph interviewer among 12 investigators in the unit. The modern day lie-detector machine, with its distinctive zigzag lines measuring heart rate, breathing and sweat, resembles little more than a computer hooked up to a blood-pressure gauge and a few wires. But for detectives, even the threat of the test can quickly alter the focus of a case. Vic Pietrantoni, a 23-year Los Angeles police homicide detective, said he has seen plenty of cooperative suspects clam up and ask for a lawyer, while others have been cleared. It was Harish Kumar’s willingness to take a polygraph in May 2002 after police found his wife, two children and mother brutally strangled and burned in their Hollywood Hills home that helped Pietrantoni and his partner quickly clear Kumar from the list of suspects. “You can talk to five or six detectives, and they will give you different perspectives,” he said. “Regardless of your feeling of a polygraph, sometimes it’s just the mention of the poly as a tool that can be used to ascertain truthfulness.” Many of the polygraph examiners are former officers injured on the job. Others are former private investigators. But all say their primary responsibility is to those on the hot seat and, ultimately, the truth. “We all get into police work to put bad guys and bullies away,” Bergner said. “Here we get to ask the questions that will never get answered (otherwise).” The catch is that the exams aren’t admissible in court, so they still spark debate about their reliability and accuracy. “It’s got a whole cultural mystique, the idea of the machine that gets inside our brain,” said Jennifer Mnookin, professor of law at the UCLA School of Law. “I believe it’s fallible. It’s better than random, but it’s certainly not foolproof.” Typically, the questioning in criminal exams lasts less than 15 minutes. Much more time is spent explaining to a suspect just what is going to be asked so there are no surprises. On a recent morning, examiner and former school police Officer Michael Hurley sat down with a homicide suspect, explaining the process for more than 30 minutes. The young man wore baggy jeans and a blue shirt. Homicide detectives watched on a satellite television in the other room as the suspect sat alone, at first fidgeting while Hurley probed the detectives for details on the case. It’s Hurley, not detectives, who determines what questions are asked. There are never more than about eight, and each one is measured in 25-second increments. They are all “yes” or “no” inquiries. When Hurley returns to the interview room, he reads each of the questions he is going to ask before the test actually begins. The testers point out that unlike police interrogators, they are not taking an accusatory tone or trying to get suspects to slip up using trick questions. Their goal is to get the truth. When it comes down to test time, the young man stares straight ahead to a gray carpeted wall. Suspects aren’t allowed to look at their examiner. The room is so quiet, you can feel your heart beat. The questions are asked three times, so any patterns or unusual responses are easily identifiable. When the test is done, Hurley concludes the man is telling the truth. He runs it by Bergner, who agrees. “He just said that he wants to return to his wife and kid,” Hurley said. On most days, the unit spends only a fraction of its time cornering would-be criminals, instead focusing on police recruits. Before 2001, the Polygraph Unit was made up of four examiners, and only officers seeking posts in sensitive units such as narcotics were tested. But now everyone goes through the test. Now, about 20 LAPD applicants go through the unit a day. And with the department trying to grow its force to 10,000, that means the unit is open all day and night, six days a week. “There is a saying,” Bergner says. “What is, is. Trust your charts.” rachel.uranga@dailynews.com 818-713-3741160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img read more