Third degree (interrogation)

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The third degree is a euphemism for torture ("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]

  • The third degree of Freemasonry and the rigorous procedures to advance to that level.[1]
  • The term may have been coined by nineteenth century New York City Police detective Thomas F. Byrnes, perhaps as a pun on his name, as in third degree burns.[3]
  • The Knights of Columbus have a third degree ceremony which is required to advance to that level, seen as rigorous.


  1. ^ a b c d Jerome Herbert Skolnick (1994). Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force. Simon & 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. ^ Ken Alder (2007). The Lie Detectors. Simon & 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…