Voice Stress Analysis: Only 15 Percent of Lies About Drug Use Detected in Field Test

The latest issue of the National Institute of Justice journal (NIJ Journal No. 259, March 2008) features a great article by Kelly Damphousse summarising recent research on voice stress analysis (VSA). Here’s an extract:

According to a recent study funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), two of the most popular VSA programs in use by police departments across the country are no better than flipping a coin when it comes to detecting deception regarding recent drug use. The study’s findings also noted, however, that the mere presence of a VSA program during an interrogation may deter a respondent from giving a false answer.

The findings of our study revealed:

  • Deceptive respondents. Fifteen percent who said they had not used drugs—but who, according to their urine tests, had—were correctly identified by the VSA programs as being deceptive.
  • Nondeceptive respondents. Eight and a half percent who were telling the truth—that is, their urine tests were consistent with their statements that they had or had not used drugs—were incorrectly classified by the VSA programs as being deceptive.

Using these percentages to determine the overall accuracy rates of the two VSA programs, we found that their ability to accurately detect deception about recent drug use was about 50 percent.

Based solely on these statistics, it seems reasonable to conclude that these VSA programs were not able to detect deception about drug use, at least to a degree that law enforcement professionals would require—particularly when weighed against the financial investment. We did find, however, that arrestees who were questioned using the VSA instruments were less likely to lie about illicit drug use compared to arrestees whose responses were recorded by the interviewer with pen and paper.

Damphousse concludes:

It is important to look at both “hard” and “hidden” costs when deciding whether to purchase or maintain a VSA program. The monetary costs are substantial: it can cost up to $20,000 to purchase LVA. The average cost of CVSA® training and equipment is $11,500. Calculating the current investment nationwide—more than 1,400 police departments currently use CVSA®, according to the manufacturer—the total cost is more than $16 million not including the manpower expense to use it.

The hidden costs are, of course, more difficult to quantify. As VSA programs come under greater scrutiny—due, in part, to reports of false confessions during investigations that used VSA—the overall value of the technology continues to be questioned.

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