Third degree (interrogation)

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The third degree is a euphemism for the "inflicting of pain, physical or mental, to extract confessions or statements".[1] In 1931, the Wickersham Commission found that use of the third degree was widespread in the United States.[1] No one knows the origin of the term, but there are several hypotheses.[1] The use of the third degree was technically made illegal after the Wickersham report. However, the interrogation method known as the Reid technique, which is now widely used by law enforcement in the U.S., is seen by many as simply a psychological version of the third degree in that it is equally capable of extracting a false confession through coercion when abused by police.[2]

Possible origins[edit]

Popular Culture[edit]

Looney Tunes Confusions of a Nutzy Spy (1943). In an establishing shot, there is a sign on a building which reads "CONSTABLE / PORKY PIG / SUCCESSOR TO / 3rd DEGREE BURNS"


  1. ^ a b c d Jerome Herbert Skolnick (1994). Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force. Simon and Schuster. p. 43. ISBN 0-02-929153-4. "... which it defined as "the inflicting of pain, physical or mental, to extract confessions or statements" was widespread throughout the United States ... Another, proposed in 1910 by Richard Sylvester, President of the ..." 
  2. ^ Kolker, Robert (2010-10-03). "Why Do People Confess to Crimes They Didn't Commit?". New York Magazine. Retrieved 2010-10-05. 
  3. ^ "'Third Degree' Not Brutal Washington's Police Head Tells Academy of Social and Political Science." (PDF). New York Times. April 9, 1910. Retrieved 2009-07-27. 
  4. ^ Darius M. Rejali (2007). Torture and Democracy. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-11422-6. "The phrase was originally coined by Major Richard Sylvester of Washington, ... Many American police chiefs denied that police practiced the third degree. ..." 
  5. ^ Richard H. Sylvester (1974). Administration of justice in the United States. American Academy of Political and Social Science. p. 18. ISBN 0-405-06136-6. 
  6. ^ Ken Alder (2007). The Lie Detectors. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0-7432-5988-2. "Thomas Byrnes, New York's notorious cop, is said to have coined the term "third degree" — perhaps a pun on his name — for his violent interrogations ..."