Sunday, September 19, 2021
Sept. 19, 2021

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Who’s telling the truth? Battle over lie-detecting is stranger than fiction


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Someone is not telling the truth. It’s either the polygraph industry behind the age-old lie detection equipment, or it’s the makers of the newer voice-stress test technology.

Both say their methods are dependable, and both claim their competitor is spreading falsehoods about what works best for police. It’s a fight that won’t be resolved any time soon.

But it gets worse. Two companies touting the alternative, voice-stress systems are battling each other like you wouldn’t believe. And it’ll take a South Florida court to decide between the rivals.

Voice-stress analyzers use computers to measure vocal patterns to detect deception during interrogations.

Numerous law enforcement agencies in the state and nation find them useful in criminal investigations, as well as in hiring cops. Some doubt their reliability. Others still prefer the old-fashioned polygraph machine, or they use neither tool.

For the past 18 years, two Florida-based voice-stress-test firms have lobbied accusations at each other. After a mediation session failed to resolve the civil dispute this past week, a trial is likely this fall.

And there’s a bit of irony: None of these competing truth-seeking ways is permitted to sort out who’s being honest here. That’ll be the job of a Palm Beach County judge.

The combatants are NITV Federal Services of Wellington (NITV at one point stood for National Institute for Truth Verification,) and Elwood Gary Baker of Panama City, owner of Baker Group International.

Each promises superior technology for ferreting out the truth from suspects and job applicants.

‘System of choice’

Founded and run by Charles Humble, NITV sells a laptop-based system called the Computer Voice Stress Analyzer. He claims it is 98% accurate, and there’s no way for someone to skew the results. A typical question-and-answer session runs about an hour.

The latest model, the CVSA-III, runs nearly $10,000, which includes a weeklong training program for two officers to learn how to become examiners.

Don’t even think about trying to buy one for home or entertainment purposes: “You’ve got to be a government agency and the users have to be government agents,” Humble, 75, said.

NITV touts on its website that it is the “truth verification system of choice for over 2,500 local, state, federal, and international law enforcement agencies.” The biggest user is said to be the California Highway Patrol, and others include police departments in New Orleans, Atlanta and Nashville.

Florida has 186 agencies that own at least one device, according to the company. It does not provide a list but shows Miami Beach Police, Tallahassee Police and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office among its users.

Spokeswoman Teri Barbera said investigators with the special victims unit and bomb squad use voice stress “sparingly” to question suspects. Tallahassee Police say it is used only for employment screenings.

Daytona Beach Police have found the voice-stress analyzer “useful at times during investigations,” said Messod Bendayan, public information officer.

“It has helped our detectives figure out the truth when speaking to suspects or victims,” he said. “It does have some limitations, but overall, it’s been a positive for us.”

Verifying veracity

Baker, 77, markets computer software called Digital Voice Stress Analyzer. He says it’s free for police — “I’m not greedy” — with a charge of only $1,500 for an officer to attend his 40-hour training course.

“The system, if applied properly, is 100% accurate,” Baker said. “You have to ask the right questions to get the right answers.”

He says his “state-of-the-art” software is proven to “verify veracity.” When a person speaks into a microphone, it measures what he says are “stress-related components of the voice” and humans are powerless to fool the system.

Baker says he has 1,500 clients with more signing up all the time. His website shows a few testimonials from officers in mainly smaller police departments, such as Niceville in Florida’s Panhandle and Lake County Sheriff’s Office in Northeast Illinois.

Reliability questions

The American Polygraph Association warns that voice-based lie detectors work no better than chance. It points to research that slammed the reliability of the systems, including a 2008 study funded by the federal government’s National Institute of Justice.

That review found the tests “were no better in determining deception about recent drug use among arrestees than flipping a coin.” In that study, researchers interviewed 319 inmates in an Oklahoma jail about their recent drug uses. The results from analyzers were matched with urine samples testing the presence of drugs.

In response, voice-stress proprietors Humble and Baker agree the polygraph folks are not to be trusted.

Humble’s company warns, “Don’t be tricked by the ‘unreliable, unscientific and biased’ sales pitches being put forth by the pro-polygraph lobby.” In promoting his product, Baker points out that customers will be pleased not to find “attached sensors, blood pressure cuffs, and or electrodes as in polygraph examinations.”

Endless litigation

The feuding began in 2003, when Humble’s original company, NITV, LLC, sued Baker in federal court for false advertising and unfair competition. The following year, NITV sued Baker for a second time, but by early 2005 the parties had agreed to a settlement.

The peace was temporary. That same year Baker sued NITV for defamation, this time in Palm Beach County Circuit Court. He accused NITV of sending out “Scam Alert” notices to police departments around the country warning about Baker’s product.

A jury sided with Baker, and in 2011, a state appeals court agreed Baker was entitled to a $250,000 award for damage to his reputation. The trial judge later approved that judgment plus interest.

But Baker says he still hasn’t seen any money. Scott W. Zappolo, attorney for Baker, said he is now asking a new judge to order Humble’s company to pay out over $400,000, including the interest amount.

Humble’s attorney, William A. Fleck, could not be reached for comment despite attempts by email and calls to his office.

But Humble explained that his original NITV company lost too much business over false attacks by Baker and his partner, making it unable to pay the judgment.

“They killed the cow they are going after,” Humble said, blaming the defamation on a former employee.

On top of that dispute, in 2015 Humble sued Baker and a partner, accusing them of doing illegal international business in Central America and other places. Baker denies the allegations.