By Kayla Hampton | email@example.com
The first time Detective Sgt. Larry Downey was in a room with a polygraph machine, he wasn’t the person asking questions. He was answering them.
In the late 1970s, Downey was studying criminal justice at Kalamazoo Valley Community College and working full time as a janitor at the West Hills Athletic Club when some money was stolen from one of the member’s lockers.
“Three people had access to it,” Downey said. “The janitor who cleaned toilets, had long hair and holes in his jeans, a tennis pro, and a clean-cut Western [Michigan University] student.”
Downey was the first of the three possible suspects brought in to take a polygraph test. Even though he knew he was innocent, he still felt nervous.
“My knees were shaking, the deodorant was running down my armpits, my voice was changing like Frankie Valli—three octaves,” Downey said. “But I got through it. I passed it.”
The “clean-cut Western student” was found to be the culprit and Downey, in addition to clearing his name, learned a valuable lesson that has influenced how he now conducts himself in his career as a polygraph examiner.
“It happened back in 1976 or ‘77, but I carried it with me for the rest of my life as far as the way I treat people,” Downey said. “It gave me an appreciation for what the person sitting in that chair experiences. When someone comes into my polygraph suite, I assume they are innocent and I treat all people equally.”
For Downey, who conducts two 90-minute polygraph exams a day, the job fits his personality because he is patient, precise, and empathetic toward the suspects.
Downey is one of two polygraph examiners in Kalamazoo County and he has worked for the sheriff’s department as an examiner for more than 30 years. While the reliability of polygraph exams continues to be debated by some, studies have shown that the tests are 85 to 90 percent accurate. Polygraphs are still widely used by law enforcement officials when they are attempting to determine guilty parties, and by companies when screening potential employees.
Detective Richard Mattoon of the Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Office has used Downey several times when he was in need of a polygraph examiner.
“It’s hard to get someone to admit to sexual assault and some flat out refuse,” Mattoon said. “I rely on Larry a lot to get to the grass roots and apply science to the process. Eliciting a confession is what we’re after and Larry is very competent and highly trained.”
Detective Sgt. Mike DeNoon, who works with both Mattison and Downey, also enjoys working with the polygrapher. DeNoon has gone out on cases with Downey several times and the two men have gotten to know one another well.
“It’s great working with Detective Sgt. Downey. He is a good man and fair, balanced, well-spoken and educated,” said DeNoon.
The married father, who has two daughters and a son, knew from a young age that he wanted to be involved in law enforcement. After graduating from KVCC, Downey joined the Army and spent three years in Panama as a military policeman. In 1995, he attended the Department of Defense Polygraph Institute, which, at the time, was located in Fort McClellan, Ala.
“Even though the procedures that I use are standardized, just the fact that I get to talk to one or two new people a day adds a different flavor and makes it interesting and exciting to me,” Downey said. “While some people might think it would be mundane doing the exact same process over and over again, I enjoy it.”
Despite the fact that Downey is often administering polygraph exams to potentially dangerous individuals, such as murderers and rapists, he said that he usually feels comfortable being in the same room as the suspects, regardless of the crime they may have committed.
However, he said, “there have been times when I’ve truly felt that I am in the presence of evil, someone that I wouldn’t turn my back on.”
Downey’s occupation allows him to determine whether or not a suspect is telling the truth and to elicit confessions from criminals, but obtaining admissions of guilt are not his main goal.
“I get as much satisfaction clearing somebody as I do when I get a confession,” Downey said. “You get a rush when you get a confession, but you also get a rush when you get someone in here who is accused of something, whether it is something minor or something egregious and you can tell them that you believe them. It’s a good feeling when you clear people.”
When he is not busy working, Downey said that he enjoys visiting his six grandchildren and traveling with his wife, who has family in Peru.
“[While in Panama], I found a love for the Latin culture, the food, and the music,” said Downey, who was born and raised in Portage. “I’m not much of a beach person, but I did like going to watch the sun rise and set. It was very peaceful and a very tranquil part of my life.”
Downey also developed a love of Latin dancing during the time he spent in Panama.
“I like salsa, merengue, and bachata. I’m not very good at it, but I enjoy the music and the movements,” Downey said.
Downey’s acquaintances are also often surprised when he tells them that he makes his living as a polygraph examiner.
“I have a pretty unique job,” Downey said. “If you look in the Yellow Pages, there are tons of doctors, tons of lawyers, but in Kalamazoo County, there are two law enforcement polygraph examiners. A lot of times [people will say], ‘Oh, I never thought I’d meet a polygraph examiner. I hear about them on TV, but I never thought I’d meet one.’”