More police departments are taping interrogations, but the country's
largest has so far resisted.
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
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
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
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
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.