April 11, 2006

Videotaping Interrogations

Today's New York Times has an article about how the Detroit police now plan to videotape interrogations of all suspects in crimes that carry a penalty of life in prison without the possibility of parole (here). This is indeed a welcome sign, because there is wide-spread suspicion that such interrogations sometimes go far beyond anything proper or humane. When they are videotaped, exactly what was said and done can be verified, which can be helpful not only to defense attorneys but also to the police.

In recent years there have been many criticisms of police interrogation techniques. In 1992 William A. Geller strongly argued for videotaping in his report to the National Institute of Justice (Police Videotaping of Suspect Interrogations and Confessions). In a survey Geller conducted, investigators found  that in 1990 about a third of of all U.S. police and sheriff departments serving 50,000 or more citizens were then videotaping a least some interrogations, primarily in homicide, rape, battery, and drunk driving cases.  Departments  reporting that they videotaped said that they began the practice to avoid defense attorney's challenges, to reduce doubts about the voluntary nature of confessions, and to aid a detective's memory when   testifying in court about what took place. Every police department surveyed said that it planned to continue the videotaping practice. At first, detectives resisted the idea but most of them eventually came to appreciate it, largely because fewer allegations of coercion or  intimidation were made by defense attorneys.

One benefit to videotaping came as something of a surprise. A majority of the departments surveyed reported that the videotaping  practice led to improvements in their interrogation techniques. Some even used interrogation tapes as training materials for inexperienced officers.

Notably unmentioned in the Times' article about Detroit's new decision is that doesn't describe exactly how much of the interrogation the police department actually plans  to tape record. Obviously, defense lawyers want the entire interrogation taped, not just the final confession part. Some police departments say that it costs too much to videotape everything, opting for recapitulations instead. I've worked on cases in which, after hours of untaped questionning, the police produced a five minute videotape of the suspect admitting that he had committed the crime. We can never know what was said leading up to such confessions or whether it was coercive or intimidating.

If the Detroit police want to do this right, they'll videotape the entirety of the interrogations, not just the recapitulations.

Posted by Roger Shuy at April 11, 2006 03:29 PM