Detective Frank Wozniak, one of the Toronto Police Service's two forensic polygraph examiners, says it is customary to treat everyone coming in for a test as a truthful person. Yet sometimes even the truth can be damning.
He recalls the time he spoke to the parent of a young murder victim. "So this guy is talking to me, and his child is lying on a slab in the morgue," he says. "And I ask him: 'What's the worst thing that ever happened to you in your whole life?' He thinks about it for a minute and then he says: 'When I was in high school and this girl I really liked broke up with me.' "
The response was chilling for Det. Wozniak, even though he's seen a lot in his 15 years with the behavioural assessment section of the police force.
Polygraph instruments measure and record involuntary physical responses to questioning, and carrying out a test is, for the most part, an analytical exercise, Det. Wozniak says. "It's poring over mountains of statements, interviews, case facts and doing a lot of preparation work even prior to getting the first interview. Then, when you do get the person in, it's a lot of communication, talking to the person for a good hour or hour and a half. Then you attach a polygraph instrument to them, ask them prearranged questions and then the analysis comes out."
Det. Wozniak got into polygraph examination after more than a decade with the police force that included several years on a fraud squad. He had been taking a course at the Canadian Police College in Ottawa in 1986 when he attended a lecture that took him aback. It was on interrogation strategies and techniques, including use of the polygraph. Fascinated by the prospect, he thought that if he were ever given the opportunity to become a polygraph examiner, he'd jump at the chance.
"What we do," he says, "is so unique. At the end of the day, I am able to render an opinion as to whether a person is telling the truth or not, and there are so few police officers in the country who have this training."
In fact, 60 officers in Canada are trained to administer polygraph tests; 20 private polygraphists, the majority of them ex-police officers, are also at work in Canada, filling a growing need for insurance companies, law firms, individuals engaged in family or marital disputes, and private companies.
Employment standards acts in Ontario and New Brunswick prohibit employers from asking workers to take such tests, although they may do so voluntarily to clear themselves of any suspicion. In Quebec, the use of polygraphs by employers is growing.
Det. Wozniak's examining room consists of a black wool chair with scuffed arms and a table with equipment to measure a person's blood presure, breathing patterns and skin responses during questioning. A small machine digitalizes the impulses and connects to the examiner's laptop computer.
Det. Wozniak may look at the way someone answers a question, his or her tone of voice, choice of words and facial expressions, but the polygraph instrument is taking into account those things that few people can control -- their physiological reactions.
Still, some people can train themselves to fool the instrument by disassociating themselves from what is happening. They use what are called countermeasures, and "there's a whole raft of these [that]people can employ if they've studied those techniques," the detective says. However, part of a polygraph examiner's training is to learn to recognize countermeasures and to use other measures to thwart the countermeasures.
Det. Wozniak is confident he's never been fooled by a client. "If a person is out there and they've committed a crime, and if they come in and they lie about that, they're going to be caught. There's no doubt about it. I'm going to catch them lying."
Unless the police have a court order, taking a lie-detector test is voluntary.
Although the results are not admissible in court, the information gathered during pretest and post-test interviews is. "If you confess after a polygraph test is done, that is admissible."
When Det. Wozniak isn't testing people, he's training other officers in interviewing strategies and behaviour evaluation, and is looking for potential candidates for his profession. He cites a background in investigation and plenty of street smarts as two major points in an officer's favour, and describes the training itself as "arduous." Women are encouraged to apply, and Det. Wozniak's partner in Toronto is a woman.
Although he has been doing the job for 15 years, he is still fascinated by his work. "I know it sounds corny," he acknowledges, "but it really is a passion with me." With detectives investigating everything from homicides to sexual assault or fraud calling on his expertise, no two days are alike. "Some nights, I'll be home watching the news and see something on a major crime, and I'll ask myself if the next day I'll be involved in helping to investigate that crime." An occasional series on career alternatives. Making the transition Skill Sets/Training:
Street smarts, plus knowledge of psychology, physiology, pharmacology and sociology are useful. So is a prodigious memory, notes Det. Frank Wozniak of the Toronto Police Service. "You're given an exam every week and if you fail, you can be dropped from the course," he adds.
A polygraph examiner also needs to work well under pressure, be alert, sensitive, have excellent communication skills and above all, the ability to remain objective. Income Range:
A police detective or sergeant in Toronto earns $73,000 or more a year. Most private polygraph examiners run their own companies, charging upwards of $600 for a test. Need to know:
In Canada, training in polygraph testing is only available at the Canadian Police College in Ottawa and only police officers may attend. In the United States, there are about a dozen places where civilians and officers can get training. Courses last two to three months and cost up to $10,000 (U.S.). Accommodation is extra. For more information:
Canadian Police College, Ottawa 613-993-9500 or
Canadian Association of Police Polygraphists 403-291-6240 or