The furious litigation of policing, its history and its flaws in 2020 is casting a glaring light on the myriad ways cops can rig the system against people, whether it’s in the killing of an innocent person like Breonna Taylor or the everyday oppression of prejudiced traffic stops.
Many of the most tragic policing incidents of the last decade have unfolded right on the street, at first contact between officer and victim. But for those who end up in handcuffs, an arguably bigger gauntlet awaits them at the police station, within the confines of a cold room the size of a medium-sized supply closet. There are so many things that can go wrong in an interrogation room when you’re accused of a crime, and only one good outcome. It may be illegal to knowingly lie to a police officer, but law enforcement have no problems knowingly lying to us. That’s just one of countless tools the police use to press people to the breaking point over hours of repetitive, accusatory questioning.
It’s no wonder that false confessions are rampant in the U.S. justice system. The phenomenon inflates the amount and volume of crime being solved in the U.S. It sends a disproportionate number of innocent people of color and those with mental illness into incarceration. And much of the problem remains opaque to the public, because some law enforcement agencies don’t record interrogations or provide transparent access to footage.
Amid this travesty stands an unlikely hero: a wiry young man the internet knows simply as “Jeff.”
His legend started nearly a decade ago, with the uploading of some low-res interrogation footage onto YouTube. What we know of Jeff is rudimentary: At the time of the interrogation, he is a resident of Georgia, charged with armed robbery and facing a 10-year minimum sentence if found guilty. He’s been through the judicial system multiple times over thanks to a wicked heroin addiction. And it’s clear from the beginning of the footage that Jeff isn’t there to play games. He is clear that the robbery charge is the result of getting unfairly arrested at his friend’s house. He is even clearer that he won’t talk to the police.
The first words out of his mouth in the video couldn’t be more blunt. “So am I under arrest?” Jeff asks.
The officer replies yes.
“Okay, then get me back to the cell,” he responds. “I don’t talk to you motherfuckers.”
Naturally, instead of complying with his request for peace (and a lawyer), the police continue to bring him back into that interrogation room over the next eight hours. What unfolds is a revealing look into how everyday cops attempt to pressure people into divulging information that might trap them, whether it’s a timeline of events or some vague implication they were involved in wrongdoing. More curiously, it’s a masterclass in how to avoid incriminating yourself, even when facing an intimidating charge and sentence.
I first saw this video when it popped up on Reddit last year, but the story of Jeff pops up frequently on the internet, most recently in an analysis by true-crime YouTube channel JCS. That video racked up more than 2.5 million views, with fans in the comment section cheering Jeff’s ability to outsmart his interrogators, even while visibly suffering from heroin withdrawal symptoms (at one point, he begins vomiting into a trashcan). The chant on the street might be “All Cops Are Bastards,” but Jeff’s story gives dimension to just how the bastardy unfolds.
Given his prior record, Jeff knew misspeaking could land him on a slippery slope. But you can also tell in the footage that the cops are keenly aware of both his past — they dangle his parole in front of him — and his weakened state from withdrawal. Two hours after his first interrogation, Jeff is back, answering the same boilerplate plea from a detective to “just tell his side of the story.” At this point, Jeff is beyond incredulous, emphasizing that he does not talk to the cops.
“I ain’t commit no fuckin’ robbery, and y’all don’t got no fuckin’ evidence sayin’ I did. All you did was find me sitting at my buddy’s house, cuz my buddy’s dog is going apeshit. I go outside, and there are cops everywhere and they spotlight me,” Jeff says in the longest burst of dialogue during the interrogation.
The detectives play “good cop,” placating Jeff with a can of Coke (per his request) every time they force him back into that tiny room for more questions. But it’s obvious that they’re basically torturing a man who’s already feeling sick, at one point even telling Jeff, “We did this twice, we can do it again.”
Jeff claims he’ll talk for another Coke and a Butterfinger. Not long after, the man is back in the interrogation room, with another soda and a new detective. This time, Jeff’s foe decides to play hardball. “I got a lot of physical evidence,” the cop says with a self-satisfied snort.
“Like what?” Jeff snaps back.
“There’s only a few pieces of evidence I’m missing,” the cop says.
“Name them,” Jeff retorts. “Name them.”
It’s not surprising that the cop chooses not to say a single thing in defense of that claim of “evidence”; at another point, he claims that he can put in a good word with Jeff’s parole officer. (Jeff’s astute reply: “That… don’t mean dick.”) Meanwhile, the last thing Jeff says in the interrogation is almost as hilarious as it is cutting: “How about that Butterfinger you promised?”
It’s unlikely he received that sweet treat, but records show he was released 12 hours later from that Georgia police department after withstanding a gauntlet of techniques to try and get him to open up and start admitting things. Part of the love and interest around the myth of Jeff, of course, is that it appears the cops really don’t have anything on him.
The pressuring of innocent people via torturous interrogation is no isolated incident in policing. In the real world, too many people make mistakes and end up convicted because of things they blurted out under duress. There are a million reasons why false confessions happen. But the only concrete fact about them is that, in America, it happens too often.
The police lie, and lie often, using confusing statements and implied language to play psychological tricks on the people they grill. Investigators must grapple with personal biases while reading the situation — merely thinking someone is guilty can dramatically shape an interrogation, creating a cascade of policing mistakes that lead to a false conviction. Detectives are still taught misleading lessons about how they can read body language to determine guilt or use trick questions to corner people rhetorically.
Many agencies abide by some form of the “Reid technique” that was developed by former cop and psychologist John E. Reid in the 1950s, after being inspired by a confession he extracted while investigating a man who murdered his wife. But psychological research actually shows that there are a multitude of triggers that can lead someone to admit to a crime they actually never committed. In fact, Reid’s own case ended up falling apart after it (and the life-in-prison sentence) was overturned because of a false confession. Even today, police-induced false confessions are “the leading cause” of innocent people ending up behind bars.
It’s unclear exactly what happened to Jeff after his release, although his old YouTube channel has updates on his more recent run-ins with the law in Missouri. If it’s the same man, it’s obvious he has retained both his distrust of law enforcement and a street-smart brilliance when it comes to his own rights. (I couldn’t find contact info for him.)
But if there is a clear takeaway for the rest of us, it’s that the cops will try to break you if they think you’re guilty. Jeff may have been just some random addict in Georgia, but he didn’t fall for police tricks. He knew the police were looking for a conviction, not a solution. And given all that crookedness, I can’t help but laugh when I think about how he convinced all those cops that he maaaaaybe might talk if they quenched his thirst.
In the words of a legend: “Wham, bam, thank ya for the Coke.”