March 12, 2007

Tape recording in the news

Last week a U.S. House subcommittee held hearings about the abrupt firing of seven U.S. attorneys. The Legal Times reports it here. Senior Justice Department official, William Moschella, had a lot of explaining to do and even Theodore Olson, who served as the Justice Deparment's solicitor general from 2001-2004, agreed that the event looked like "a circular firing squad."

What captured my attention most, though, was the reason Moschella gave for the firing of U.S. attorney Paul Charlton of Arizona. The article says this:

...Charlton's problems were "more in the policy category" -- taping confessions in contravention of department policy...

So now we know. Moschella reported that the Department of Justice has a policy against law enforcement officers tape recording the confessions of their suspects. This policy exists despite the growing understanding by police departments that obtaining such  unimpeachable  practices actually protects the officers from being accused of unfair interrogation techniques, to say nothing about fairness (see here). Fifteen years ago, the National Institute of Justice commissioned William A. Geller to research this issue. His 219-page report, Police Videotaping of Suspect Interrogations and Confessions (August 7, 1992) revealed how police departments benefit from such practice not only by protecting themselves from criticism, but also by teaching officers how to interrogate suspects fairly and successfully.

It's hard to imagine how any data-gathering agency, institution, or field of study can have a policy of not collecting evidence openly and in a way that can stand up to criticism.  Today, even in some jurisdictions where confessions ARE tape recorded, often it's only the final minutes of recapitulation that are preserved, leaving unaswered the question about how the officers got to that point. Apparently the Justice Department isn't even willing to go that far. To have a national policy forbidding the tape recording confessions (and whole interrogations, for that matter), is mind boggling.

Posted by Roger Shuy at March 12, 2007 03:30 PM