Stakes are high at St. Albert polygraph business
Metro reporter takes on the lie detector test.
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Ken Donaldson and his polygraph wield a lot of power.
Couples take polygraph exams – commonly known as lie detector tests – as the final word on whether one party is cheating. Employers do the same to weed out thieving employees.
Clients of Donaldson’s business ITR Polygraph, which he and his wife Lesley run in St. Albert, include criminal justice lawyers, judges and Members of Parliament.
“It brings me no joy to tell somebody they failed, but it’s what we do,” Donaldson said.
“I feel sorry for people who make mistakes. But the bottom line is we have to own our own behaviour and deal with the fallout.”
Donaldson says without hesitation that his test is accurate 100 per cent of the time.
There is not a lot of science backing polygraphs, however. A 2002 National Academy of Sciences review determined the devices catch most lies but produce too many false positives. There have been at least two cases in the U.S. in which courts determined prisoners were wrongly sentenced after confessions extracted by polygraph tests.
Donaldson believes proper training can guarantee accurate readings. He went to the Academy of Polygraph Science in Florida, one of seven American Polygraph Association-accredited schools in North America, and it’s been his full-time job for 13 years.
He has no problem diving into intense topics with heavy outcomes.
“If we’re talking about touching a child sexually, then that’s what we’re going to talk about,” he said.
“That person is here to either prove to the world that they’re not doing this horrible thing, or I’m going to say, ‘Yes you are.’ ”
His favourite cases are those where an accused finds redemption. He recalls one example when a man lost his job after being accused of stealing lumber, and took a test to prove to his family that he was innocent.
I’m a skeptic and a terrible liar, so I couldn’t write on polygraphs without strapping myself in.
Donaldson put chains across my stomach and chest, then connected two wires to my fingers and a blood pressure pump to my right arm, in front of a small video camera that captured my movements.
The device was hooked up to a laptop to measure two channels of breathing, galvanic skin response and perspiration, pulse rate and blood volume.
I picked a number, wrote it down and placed it underneath my leg, and answered “no” when Donaldson asked if I had picked each number from one through seven. He waited 25 seconds between every question for my body to reset.
I’d been up late reading about ways to beat a polygraph, and tried every strategy I could remember – clenching my toes, biting my tongue or thinking scary thoughts to throw the machine for a loop each time I uttered a “no.”
After running twice through the numbers, he showed me my graphs and they were all over the place, with no clear indication of where I was lying.
I had picked six.
“I didn’t see as much reaction from you in six as I did in these other ones. But I think it’s because the breathing patterns are changing quite a bit,” Donaldson told me.
He did, however, notice a slight “echo” in my heartbeat after No. 6 that was absent from the other numbers, which could have given me away.
In a case where there is actual jeopardy, Donaldson would print out the readings and analyze them carefully. A client will react differently when the stakes are high, whereas mine were nonexistent, so it’s impossible to say whether I could have beaten a full test.
Polygraphs are still used by RCMP and police forces across Canada despite doubts about their accuracy.
The Supreme Court of Canada rejected the use of polygraph exams as evidence in court almost 30 years ago, but the Edmonton Police Service still puts every recruit through a polygraph. EPS spokesperson Anna Batchelor said police also use the device as an investigative tool “when appropriate,” though she could not offer further details.
As for Donaldson, his business continues to grow.
“Every year we get busier," he said.