NYPD Bucks a Growing Trend


By Shaila K. Dewan, The New York Times

Last year, when a judge threw out the convictions of five men in the Central Park jogger case after a sixth man confessed to the rape, a new question immediately arose. Why had the men confessed to being at the scene of the crime?

Four of them gave videotaped statements after long interrogations that were not taped, and their advocates claim that they were tricked or coerced before the cameras rolled. They are now suing the New York Police Department for $50 million.

The question of coercion would be easy to settle if the five men, who were all teenagers at the time, had been videotaped from the moment they entered the precinct house. After the convictions were vacated, politicians, defense lawyers and the New York Civil Liberties Union took advantage of the moment to press the Police Department to begin taping interrogations from start to finish, particularly in homicides and other violent felonies.

Even though it is an idea that is quickly gaining acceptance elsewhere, the country's largest police department, New York City's, has so far resisted. "I don't see a need, quite frankly," Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said in an interview last week. With 220,000 to 250,000 arrests each year, he added, "The logistics of it are mind-boggling for an agency this size."

More and more police departments are taping interrogations, in part because of increased nationwide attention to wrongful convictions, more than 20 percent of which involve false confessions, research has shown. This year, Illinois became the third state, after Minnesota and Alaska, to require taping. San Antonio, Washington and Miami are among the cities that have recently begun or are about to begin taping.

Christopher Dunn, the associate legal director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said: "What this is about is getting them to turn the camera on earlier than they do. It's logistically somewhat more complicated, but it's not a whole new thing."

But even New York prosecutors whose offices were among the first to videotape confessions in the 1970's urge caution in adopting a new procedure. "We should always be open to new ideas, but we've got to carefully consider the consequences of new ideas before we rush to adopt them," said the Queens district attorney, Richard A. Brown.

Mr. Kelly acknowledged that there were arguments that videotaped interrogations allowed for better prosecutions. But, he said: "There's a lot of uncharted waters here. We're talking about Alaska and Minnesota, two places that simply don't come anywhere near the issues and problems that we have here."

Steven A. Drizin, a professor at the Northwestern University School of Law who advocates taping, said juries were skeptical of confessions and were beginning to expect videotapes. "The only reasons not to do it are really excuses masquerading as reasons," he said.

In addition to the Central Park jogger case, Professor Drizin has identified 11 New York City cases in which a person who confessed to a crime was later proved innocent or acquitted at trial, notably the case of Bently Louis Grant, a homeless man arrested after a waitress in Midtown Manhattan was struck on the head with a chunk of concrete. Although Mr. Grant, after a 20-hour interrogation, confessed to the assault, a surveillance video showed later that he was in a record store at the time of the assault.

Russell Neufeld, the lawyer in charge of the criminal defense division of the Legal Aid Society, says there are more false confessions that never come to light. "We've had all these clients for years and years whose confessions just were scripted," he said. "You knew the words weren't the clients' words." In one client's confession, he recalled, the man said, "And then I fired my weapon at the Caucasian civilian."

Proponents of videotaping say that it has benefits for the police and prosecutors as well as for defendants, as it can protect detectives from spurious claims that they did not read Miranda rights, denied requests for a lawyer or otherwise mistreated suspects.

The New York Police Department has not explicitly rejected the idea of videotaping interrogations, but Commissioner Kelly and other law enforcement officials say that the logistical hurdles and costs make it virtually impossible. Each of 75 precinct houses would have to be equipped with cameras, Mr. Kelly said, and officers would have to be trained to use them. It would be difficult to accommodate more than one suspect at a time, he said. "In the jogger case, well over 30 people were talked to," he said.

There are a host of other questions that officials said would need to be addressed. During the questioning of a witness who is not initially a suspect, at what point would taping begin? Would videotaping discourage suspects from sharing knowledge of other crimes and perpetrators? Would the suspects even know they were being taped? What would stop defense lawyers from claiming that coercion occurred before the cameras started rolling? What if equipment malfunctioned?

Other jurisdictions have decided that the value of taping supersedes the headaches. Some policies have made exceptions for malfunctioning equipment, or specified that taping must start when the person being questioned is informed of his rights.

Chief John F. Timoney, a former first deputy police commissioner in New York who is now the head of the Miami Police Department, said he had set up interrogation rooms with cameras for use in serious crimes. Suspects must agree to be taped. Unrecorded statements made at the scene of the crime or en route to police headquarters are fully admissible.

Start-up costs in Miami were minimal, and the only major cost concern was tape storage, Chief Timoney said. "New York is much more difficult, but even there, you could do the precinct detectives, the borough detectives," he said.

In Minnesota, taping has met with good reviews from law enforcement agencies that initially had reservations. "There was concern that it would wreak havoc on the interrogation process, and it turns out that the opposite is true," said Amy Klobuchar, the lead prosecutor in Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis and its suburbs. "Cops and prosecutors have found it to be very useful in obtaining convictions and warding off claims of police brutality."

One delicate issue for law enforcement officials is a concern that juries would not respond favorably to common interrogation methods like telling a suspect, falsely, that there is evidence against him or that a friend has implicated him.

Ms. Klobuchar has responded to that concern by putting the police officers on the stand. "Our lawyers have them explain what the rules are, and the juries understand," she said. "We think it's helped to build up the credibility of the police."

Asked about the costs of the program, Ms. Klobuchar laughed. "You mean costs compared to the $35 million verdicts they're getting for wrongfully convicting people?" she said.

In New York State, however, there is less incentive to guard against wrongful conviction lawsuits because they are very difficult to win. The State Court of Claims resolved 175 such suits between 1985 and the end of last year, and only 12 yielded awards to plaintiffs, totaling $5.5 million.

Professor Drizin, the Northwestern University law school instructor, said that the financial cost of videotaping should not be be the sole concern. "You also have to weigh that against the damage that's done against the credibility of police and the justice system in general every time a confession is called into question," he said.

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