The Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), which oversees the Texas Highway Patrol and the state’s (in)famous Texas Ranger Division, said this week it has finally halted the discredited hypnosis techniques it used to provide evidence in criminal investigations since at least the start of the 1980s.
It’s not exactly a surprise that police would buy into dubious investigative techniques — there’s a long history of cops being bamboozled by self-declared psychic detectives, for example — but the scale and longevity of the Texas hypnosis program were unrivalled throughout the country. Last year, a Dallas Morning News investigation showed Texas cops used the technique in at least 1,800 cases over the last 40 years to extract details from victims and eyewitnesses, all with little pushback or scepticism in state courts.
Hypnotism is nowhere close to the same degree of mysticism as contacting the dead, and scientists have come up with significant evidence that something more than theatrics can be at work when it’s performed by trained professionals in a therapeutic setting. That, according to the Morning News, was not the case in Texas, where authorities used it to attempt to retrieve accurate memories out of individuals who couldn’t provide them — in conflict with a vast body of scientific research contesting the basic assumptions of investigative hypnosis and finding it is likely to result in distorted memories or the implanting of suggested ideas.
Evidence culled from forensic hypnosis was introduced into dozens of Texas cases that resulted in convictions and in several cases the death penalty, despite strong evidence hypnosis can actually push interviewees into being more confident about incorrect recollections, the Morning News wrote:
Researchers, by and large, say hypnosis is an unreliable, potentially dangerous investigative tool.
Experts warn of four main pitfalls: subjects can be prone to suggestion, potentially responding to cues or offering inaccurate information to please the hypnotist. They may lose critical thinking skills. They may “confabulate,” filling gaps in memory with events that never occurred. And when a hypnosis session is over, their belief in the veracity of these fabricated ideas may harden, a phenomenon called “memory cementation.”
One of the core texts upon which the program was founded was Los Angeles Police Department psychologist Martin Reiser’s 1980 book The Handbook of Investigative Hypnosis. In the decades since, investigative hypnosis has become one of the many branches of forensic practice that have fared very poorly under scientific scrutiny and are now considered very unreliable, like blood splatter analysis and some types of evidence used in arson cases like burn patterns. Its use by cops appears to have peaked in the 1980s and 1990s when its reputation was significantly damaged by its coercive role in hoax “Satanic panic” cases played up by Christian extremists and fringe psychologists.
In one highlighted rape case in Texas in 1988, an officer in Dallas used a technique that relied upon the idea of memory being like a VHS tape that can be rewound; Santa Clara University School of Law in California professor Alan Scheflin told the Morning News, “I’m not only not impressed, but I’m kind of frightened by what [the officer] did… The one view everybody agrees on for the most part in the memory field is that memory is not like a tape recorder and everything is not remembered.”
At least 21 states now ban hypnotic evidence in court entirely and “nearly all” states have imposed restrictions on it, the Morning News wrote. While Texas has certified at least 874 police in investigative hypnosis, the paper found it was impossible to determine how many were still performing it or how many cases it was actually used in, and some Rangers passed tests on and used the technique but were never formally certified.
A DPS officer who had performed and trained other officers in investigative/forensic hypnosis, James Debrow, defended the practice to the Morning News: “Interviewers, specialised interviewers, are trained to not be suggestive. We’re not here to give information in a hypnosis session. We’re here to retrieve it.”
The Morning News reported on Friday that the program terminated in January 2021, with Assistant Chief of Media and Communications Travis Considine telling the paper “DPS has developed more advanced interview and interrogation techniques that yield better results.” Considine didn’t tell the paper whether its reporting had influenced the decision. But several state legislators have introduced bills to ban the use of hypnosis by police and a representative had recently pressed the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which reviews the validity of forensic techniques, on the Rangers’ hypnosis program.