Brow Beat

Police Interrogation Consultants Are Suing Over Netflix’s When They See Us

A young black boys sits in a dark police room as a white man in a suit stands pointing at him.
Marquis Rodriguez (seated) portraying one of the wrongly convicted young men of the Central Park Five, Raymond Santana, in Netflix’s When They See Us. Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

John E. Reid and Associates Inc., a police interrogation training and consulting firm, filed a lawsuit against Netflix, writer-director Ava DuVernay, and her distribution company Array on Monday—over a single disparaging comment made by a character in their “Central Park Five” docudrama When They See Us.

In the final installment of the four-part series, Manhattan assistant district attorney Nancy Ryan (played by Famke Janssen) and a co-investigator confront NYPD detective Michael Sheehan (William Sadler) over the coercive interrogation techniques used in the Central Park Five case. As the discussion grows more heated, Ryan’s partner, unnamed in the series and listed as “Man” in the Reid lawsuit, lays into Sheehan saying, “You squeezed statements out of them after 42 hours of questioning and coercing, without food, bathroom breaks, withholding parental supervision. The Reid technique has been universally rejected. That’s truth to you.”

While representatives for Netflix and DuVernay have not yet responded to multiple requests for comment from the media, the complaint says that they rejected a demand from Reid, made in a July 31 letter, to excise the offending scene or issue a retraction.

In their 41-page filing in Illinois federal district court, John E. Reid and Associates (but not John E. Reid himself, as the former Chicago police officer, psychologist, and polygraph expert passed away in 1982) took issue with this characterization of the Reid technique, saying about the slagging:

When They See Us assigns blame for what occurred in the Central Park Jogger Case. Besides Sheehan, other police officers, and prosecutors, Defendants also blame Reid for being the proponent of coercive tactics that were used by Sheehan and others in eliciting coercive and wrongful confessions. The program falsely represents that squeezing and coercing statements from juvenile subjects after long hours of questioning without food, bathroom breaks or parental supervision, is synonymous with the Reid Technique.

Perhaps the most generous thing that can be said about the Chicago-based firm’s lawsuit (which the Hollywood Reporter’s legal blog described as “very curious”) is that the Reid technique arguably might not have been “universally” rejected at the time of the events depicted in the series so much as very, very widely criticized. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, for example, specifically criticized the interrogation tactics detailed in the Reid manual in the court’s landmark 1966 Miranda v. Arizona decision.

In 2017, another Illinois-based interrogation consulting firm, Wicklander-Zulawski and Associates, publicly announced that it would be stepping away from the Reid technique and other “confrontational” methods, citing that approximately 29 percent of all DNA-based exonerations in the United States since 1989 (the year of the Central Park Five arrests, incidentally) involved false confessions. The confession that helped establish John Reid’s career, the nine-hour interrogation of 24-year-old Darrel Parker, wrongfully convicted of brutally raping and murdering his 22-year-old wife in 1955, was officially overturned by the state of Nebraska in 2012.

Nevertheless, it’s up to the court in Illinois’ Northern District to review and determine whether Netflix and DuVernay are guilty of defamation, unjust enrichment, false light, and the other counts listed in the suit.