Daniel Rubin: A failed polygraph dashes his police hopes, right or wrong

Greg Thomas , who works in the city court system, scored high on the written police test and passed the physical and background checks.
Greg Thomas , who works in the city court system, scored high on the written police test and passed the physical and background checks. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 19, 2011

In high school, Greg Thomas dreamed of playing baseball, until he stopped growing at 5-foot-6. That's when he started thinking about law enforcement.

"I loved how every day was different," he says, "how you get to interact with people, and figure them out, how you have to be able to determine the difference between truth and deception."

He left New Bedford, Mass., for La Salle University, where he got a criminal-justice degree, and he stayed in town for a master's at St. Joe's. Since then, he's worked for the warrant unit of the city court system, pinching accused rapists, bank robbers, and those charged with attempted murder.

His boss, Thomas Press, says Thomas is a fine officer whom he'd recommend without hesitation. "If we had any doubt about Greg's character or his integrity, he couldn't be carrying a gun, serving warrants for me."

The Philadelphia Police Department didn't question Press about the 27-year-old investigator. Thomas didn't get any farther than his polygraph test.

In the spring he passed the physical and the criminal-records check, and scored in the top 5 percent on the written police test. But he bombed two of four polygraph questions the Police Department has asked of its applicants.

Fail that many, and you're done.

"I'm just really annoyed," Thomas said the other day. The examiner at the Academy for Scientific Investigative Training in Center City told him he gave unbelievable denials to inquiries about whether he'd used, sold, or handled illegal drugs within the last five years and whether he'd committed a serious crime, caught or not.

As an investigator for the warrant unit, Thomas handles drugs but is subjected to random tests to make sure he doesn't use them. He had to pass a background check before working in his job, and his supervisor said the office is notified if an employee is charged with a crime.

Furthermore, Thomas said he passed a polygraph when he applied with the Pennsylvania State Police, and was offered a job in 2009 on the condition that he have surgery to correct his 20/70 vision, which he didn't want to do.

Did a bad day of testing weed out a good man?

Patricia Giorgio-Fox, deputy police commissioner for organizational accountability, isn't so sure. "The polygraphers are very comfortable with the results of this particular candidate," she said.

Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey has been working to intensify the hiring process, she said, to address the department's "integrity problem." In the spring, Ramsey chose to reinstate polygraph tests, which had not been used to screen recruits since 2002, when Commissioner Sylvester Johnson found them ineffective.

Most big-city police departments use polygraphs for hiring, says George Maschke, a UCLA Ph.D. and polygraph critic. But New York City does not, nor do any departments in New Jersey.

Maschke calls the tests "junk science," and says they measure anxiety, not deception. Nathan Gordon, director of the company that won the contract to test Philadelphia recruits, says his exams sort the perspiring from the lying. But even he says that industrywide, the tests are only 85 to 95 percent accurate.

Should a department so desperate for good recruits bounce a candidate because of a couple of bad answers? Or should it continue probing that person's background?

"They are passing over [people] at an alarming rate," said John J. Nesby, president of the city Fraternal Order of Police. "I think [the polygraph] is a good tool, but it's all in the person administering it, and what their standards are."

I asked Giorgio-Fox what sort of pass rate the lie detectors were producing. After her people spent a day poring through files, she called me back, saying she was surprised at the results.

Of about 2,700 people invited to show up for the orientation sessions in the spring, about half stayed long enough to begin testing, and most dropped out before the polygraph.

Of the 403 candidates who remained, 63 percent failed the lie-detector test.

Giorgio-Fox says polygraphs are effective. "We're knocking out the big problems," she said. "There's no doubt in our minds there are some people who just can't successfully complete a polygraph. But the advantage of giving it, in the commissioner's opinion, will far outweigh that."

She said that when this recruiting class is complete, the department will fine-tune the program if needed.

If Thomas is as clean as he and his boss say he is, wouldn't you think there would be a way for him and others like him to still be considered? There isn't now. Appeals are not accepted. Two strikes, and he's out.


Contact columnist Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com,

or @danielrubin on Twitter. Read his blog at philly.com/blinq.

 

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