A few years ago I found myself in the position of taking a pre-employment polygraph examination. I wrote most of this at the time and then sat on it for a few years due to the intensely private nature of the experience. It’s interesting to me to see how it’s aged.
In a slightly new experience, I’m on the other side of the intercom.
I’m staring at a mirrored glass door that shows me my own rippled reflection – the kind of security coating applied hastily after move-in when someone realized they don’t want the general public staring straight into the office. The police department’s name is plastered across the door and to the left is a small intercom with an even smaller sign to press the button, but to not hold it while speaking.
It only became apparent after the door was tried a few times and found locked and unyielding.
It’s the same kind of intercom we had at my old police department. I spent ten years sitting in the office waiting for people to find it before buzzing into dispatch, watching them over CCTV trying the locked door a few times first. To be reenacting that now is just karma, and I own it.
After contact is established whoever’s inside tells me to have a seat, and I do. Spartan, glassy office building lobby – this is a personnel office exiled from the main station and it cohabitates with offices from the sheriff’s department, probation and the Board of Equalization, whatever the hell that is. People come and go. Up the elevator and stairs. Back down. Some in suits, some in sweat pants. Lots with pink sheets of paper that I learn are probation sheets when someone standing in front of the directory sign asks a passing officer where the Probation Department is.
I’m sitting in a chair on the first when Joe comes out, and Joe is very much a cop. He’s got that career law enforcement body type of “solid brick shithouse” as he towers over and around me; probably 6’2” and 290 pounds. He’s in his fifties with graying hair, business formal shirt and pants. Joe’s very much a cop and he’s here to give me a polygraph test.
While I waited for Joe I had time to consider the following: I’m waiting to take a pre-employment polygraph test to answer 911 calls, something I’ve done for another police department for ten years. Meanwhile the connected world is reeling as it comes out that the President of the United States revealed highly classified intelligence to Russian officials with Russian state media in the room. All I want to do is answer emergency lines. I wonder how many polygraphs Trump people have gone through so far. The cognitive dissonance between standards is nearly overwhelming.
Joe’s pleasant enough. After I fill out some paperwork and read the pamphlet, police department policy and relevant statutes, he brings me into the polygraph room proper. It’s an odd coloring – almost a muted maroon. As I step in his desk and computer are in front of me. To the right is a regular chair he has me sit in first, to the left is a black leather-and-metal contraption that looks for all the world like an electric chair. He later tells me that everyone calls it that. Electrodes and straps and god-knows-what hang off it.
He smiles when he tells me everyone calls it an electric chair. I try not to run.
There are all sorts of polygraph tests and they all proceed differently. In my case this is a pre-employment polygraph consisting of two parts. The initial stage sees me in the regular desk chair, webcam pointed at me and recording my every move and sound, as he goes through about a hundred questions. Most are themed off the Personal History Statement I had to submit, a thirty page document in which I listed everywhere I’ve lived, everywhere I’ve worked, all my debt, all my family, all my crimes, and at the end six people who will hopefully tell the background investigator that I’m a good guy. I wish they were in the room with me for this.
Joe asks me about just about everything in that packet except for them.
Joe starts out with my name, though, and my current address. Where I’m licensed to drive out of and who I live with. Who my siblings are and whether they’re criminals. I ask if that includes keg parties they held while our parents were away, and he laughs. Joe moves on to my credit history and I explain awkwardly, having to look a grown man in the eye for the first time and admit, that yes my finances are atrocious. Credit card debt and medical debt. Some of it’s up to date, some of it not so much. He shrugs. He’s impassive about it. He tries to seem as nonjudgmental as possible. My best bet, he told me when we started, is to be a completely open book with him. He’s not here to judge any of it but he needs to know it all because my body will betray me about it. And he can only help me if he knows.
Joe moves on to my employment history and I realize I made a slight mistake in one part. He shrugs, writes down the correction. “Don’t pretend you did it all perfect – no one does. We just need to iron out the details before we get to the machine or the BI,” he says, again referencing the Background Investigator.
We start talking about personal history. Joe prefaces it with a casual, practical look right into my eyes as he says Don’t Lie To Me. “Don’t try to minimize something, don’t lowball it, don’t pretend it happened too far back. When I ask a question it’s about your entire history from birth. When I ask about theft, if you stole someone’s lunch money twenty years ago I need to know about it because I’ll be able to tell once you’re hooked up.” I never stole anyone’s lunch money. I did steal a kid’s ice cream money, once, when I was six. He’s right. I still feel guilty about it and still have a reaction.
Thirty-five cents. Sorry, kid.
Keep in mind I’m still just sitting in the regular chair here. The hard part hasn’t started yet. Isn’t even close to starting yet. But this IS the hard part for me – the idea of radical transparency not just with a stranger but with a guy who started off our meeting by explaining that he’s been in law enforcement for twenty years and started off at the FBI. He’s done six hundred or so polygraphs by his count and here I am talking about kindergarten with him.
“Have you ever been arrested for or charged with a crime?” No. He goes down list of a dozen crimes anyway. No, no, no. “Have you ever been associated with a group that advocates the overthrow of the government?” No. Well, not really. “Have you ever been a member of a street gang or other criminal enterprise?” I consider joking about being a juggalo for a tenth of a second before my rational brain and stress brain remind me this is not the fucking time for jokes.
He rattles off a list of drugs and asks whether I’ve ever tried them. He finishes the list, and then goes into manufacture and trafficking questions, and that’s of course a no.
In the past twelve months, have I consumed alcohol to a point of moderate intoxication? Well yes, yes I have. When was the last time? Late April.
When was the last time I consumed alcohol to a point of extreme intoxication? This is one of those questions that you wonder about. Will a yes reflect poor judgment, or will a no reflect an unbelievable and inauthentic image of yourself? 2014, I admit. I don’t tell him what they had to do to clean up after me.
He skips over those six listed references, the last section of the packet, my vanguard. No need to discuss them, it seems. But I want to. It’ll make me feel better.
“It’s time for a break,” Joe says. “Take ten or fifteen minutes, go to the bathroom, get some fresh air. And while you do it I want you to think about this question: what’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
Well jesus christ. I’m not sure you understand the concept of a break, Joe.
I take a quiet piss in the bathroom and stagger outside for air. Turn my phone on, send a few messages to my people. Breathe deep in the openness and in the connection as I complain about the process. It’s 2:40PM now and I’ve been in there with him since 12:45.
I get love and support over my phone, then turn it back off and head inside.
“So what’s your answer,” he asks, after making sure I hear and acknowledge that we’re recording again. I’m back in the piped chair and the webcam is back on me with that amber activation light aglow.
“What’s the worst thing I’ve ever done? Hell. The answer’s kind of personal, but I suppose all of this is. I used to be a much worse person than I am now and I spent a long time emotionally manipulating girlfriends, but that doesn’t seem material to this does it?”
“Nope. What I’m looking for here…” For the first time, I interrupt him.
“What you’re looking for is, a year down the road, if I’m on the stand over a call I took and some defense attorney is staring me down, what’s the worst goddamn thing he can unleash about me?”
“There’s not a lot, Joe. I mean I was never a conventional kid or teen, I hung around with a lot of people that did illegal things in high school, I know a few people that smoke weed. But I’m largely a private person without too many attachments. I’m the kind of guy that has the fewest possible hooks for someone to hang him on.”
He seems to accept this response, and now it’s time for The Chair.
This polygraph consisted of several biometrics: electrodes strapped to my fingers to measure conductivity (sweating), wires and tubes strapped across my torso to measure my breathing, a blood pressure cuff, and a sensor pad under my ass to register the slightest movement of my body. Joe straps me in pleasantly and methodically and then goes back to his desk, where his monitor sits between him and I.
So he can see the readouts and me at the same time, of course.
The polygraph room is a slightly-nicer kind of interrogation room. There’s a mirrored window on the far wall that I’m staring into now, because The Chair faces the mirror. I can only see myself strapped in and try to not look horrified as I look in my own eyes. He suggests looking at a point on the wall instead since the mirror can freak people out a little sometimes, but we both know it’s purposeful.
“There’s no one in the other room behind the glass,” Joe says. “It’s used as a storage room. If you hear someone going in they’re just grabbing supplies. If any external sound affects you I’ll see it and we’ll pause the test.” The implication there is: from here I see everything going on with you, the machine and I are both sensitive enough. You won’t beat either of us.
The second part of this polygraph, the machine part, is shorter. Those initial hundred questions and that short break were for him – so he could narrow it down to particularly sensitive questions. The second part consists of about ten questions, and is repeated twice, for a total of three rounds of the same ten questions in a different order each time. But I actually hear the questions four times – before he straps me in, he goes over each question with me once so I know the questions that are coming. I end up a little perplexed, and then he hooks me up.
I am strapped in and staring myself in the face. That amber webcam light is still glowing in the periphery. We start.
“Are you currently sitting?” Yes.
“Do you have any intention of deceiving me in answering these questions?” No.
“Have you ever been involved in any major crimes?” No.
“Is it the month of May?” I take a second. Yes.
I’m trying to breathe and the lights look a little funny. I’m in a quiet room, staring myself in the face as the blood pressure cuff rubs against my arm. I can feel my heartbeat in my arm, and I can feel my heartbeat in my chest.
“Is it your intent to lie or omit any information about involvement in serious drugs activity?” What? No.
“Are you the kind of person that would take credit for another’s work?” No.
“Are you the type of man that would betray his family’s confidence?” No.
I honestly don’t remember the other questions. The confidence one he explains before the test – a police department is a family, and they need to know if you’d betray that family.
We finish the first test and he’s got a slightly skeptical look on his face. “You’re moving a lot. Every time I ask a question you’re moving, and then when I don’t you’re not.”
I bite my tongue to keep from pointing out that I’m moving when he asks if it’s goddamn May, then, and when he asks if I’m sitting. Six hundred polygraphs, I should probably stay schtum.
“We’ve got two more rounds to do but if you keep moving like that I’m just going to end it on this one and tell the captain ‘hey this guy won’t sit still.’”
I’m an anxious guy, I say. A bit nervous. I move. But I make sure he knows I understand him, and we go to Round Two.
“I’m a little worried, Ian,” he says on completing round two. “Just be honest. Open book. Is there any reason you’re moving like that?” We move on to round three despite his earlier warning, and complete it.
When we finish I try not to look straight at him too quickly, too intensely. I don’t want him to think I’m trying to read him but of course it’s what he expects anyway. And looking away from him feels inculpatory too; “avoided looking the examiner in the eye upon completing the test,” I write in some damning post-exam report in my head. I look at him.
“What was the toughest question for you? Nine out of ten people get it right.”
“The family one surprised me a little…” He brushes it off.
Guess I’m that one out of ten.
We talk about the question that was “toughest for me” – another bit of messaging from him that he knows me better than I do, considering.
“I’m going to be honest with you, I’m marking this question as inconclusive. It’s not a fail, just an explanation to the BIs that I can’t conclude whether you’re being truthful or deceitful here.” It’s literally the only thing in the entire process he’s doubted me on – he mentioned several times up until the second part that nothing seemed amiss and I didn’t seem to be lying or omitting – and I’m suddenly annoyed, though I don’t show it.
I sign a statement saying that, in more flowery prose, the examiner did not waterboard me during my experience. He’s been polite and pleasant. I should hear the formal results within two weeks. We shake hands, I thank him for his time and make my way to the car. It’s 4PM and I’ve been in there over three hours.
Three hours of albeit casual interrogation by an advanced professional for a 911 job, after ten years in the business and with solid recommendations behind me. And that’s taking into account the privilege I receive for being white. I spend a moment imagining what it may have been like without that privilege. The drive back home is long and by the time I get there I’ve got a raging headache but I wade back into twitter anyways.
I started the day reading about Trump revealing information to the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador to the US. Sometime during the day, while I’ve been strapped into The Electric Chair and answering questions about illegal sex acts and the like, the New York Times has broken that Trump attempted to directly interfere in a federal counterintelligence investigation. Life becomes surreal again.
The evening is okay, thanks to a hard cider or two. The night is longer. I end up staring at the ceiling for a good amount of time replaying the entire process in my head, going over my answers. Laying out in front of a police officer not my life, but the bad parts of it. The missteps, the fuckups, the moments of malice. More than anything else, that’s what I’m left with: a process with little to no interest in who I am, but only the worst of who I was.
After taking a day I call and withdraw from the hiring process.