Commonly known as lie detectors, polygraphs are virtually unused in civilian life. They’re largely inadmissible in court and it’s illegal for most private companies to consult them. Over the past century, scientists have debunked the polygraph, proving again and again that the test can’t reliably distinguish truth from falsehood. At best, it is a roll of the dice; at worst, it’s a vessel for test administrators to project their own beliefs.
Yet Talbot’s test was no different from the millions of others conducted annually across the public sector, where the polygraph is commonly used as a last-ditch effort to weed out unsuitable candidates. Hiring managers will ask a range of questions about minor crimes, like marijuana use and vandalism, and major infractions, like kidnapping, child abuse, terrorism, and bestiality. Using a polygraph, these departments believe, increases the likelihood of obtaining facts that potential recruits might prefer not to reveal. And like hundreds of thousands of job candidates each year, Talbot was judged to have lied on the test. He failed.
New Haven allows failed applicants to plead their case in public before the Board of Police Commissioners. So in February 2014, Talbot sat down and recited his experiences with lie detectors. He had first applied to the Connecticut State Police and was failed for deception about occasional marijuana use as a minor. He then tried again with a police department in New Britain, where a polygraph test showed him lying about his criminal and sexual history.
This time he had failed the New Haven polygraph for something cryptically called “inconsistencies.” “[But] I’m not hiding anything,” he said at the hearing. “I was being straight and honest and I’ve never been in trouble with the law. I’m not lying about anything.”