By Adam Liptak, The New York Times
Police departments that electronically record the interrogations of
suspects have come to embrace the practice, according to a new survey
of more than 200 law enforcement agencies in 38 states. The study
found that officials in those departments almost uniformly said that
the recordings saved time and money, created compelling evidence and
were effective in resolving disputes about whether confessions were
voluntary and about allegations of police misconduct.
"All of the writing that has been done in this area was by professors
and defense lawyers, who say that you must do this to stop police
from abusing suspects," said the author of the study, Thomas P.
Sullivan, a former United States attorney in Chicago. "I wanted to
know what the police thought."
Lt. Jon Priest of the Denver police department, which has been taping
interrogations for 22 years, praised the practice as "very successful
and very powerful."
"It's a relatively unimpeachable documentary source," he said,
echoing the study's findings. "I really shudder to think about having
to explain to a jury why I didn't tape an interview."
John R. Schmidt, a lawyer with Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw in Chicago,
said he had heard similar things when he was a senior official in the
Justice Department in the Clinton administration.
"I never talked to a police department chief who had started to tape
who had not come to like it," he said. "Not learned to live with it,
but authentically come to like it."
The study, set to be released today by the Center on Wrongful
Convictions at Northwestern University, included information from
large police departments, like those in Phoenix and Houston, and
smaller ones, like those in Kalispell, Mont., and Bloomfield, Conn.
Most used both audio and video recording devices, though some used
The taping of interrogations is still relatively uncommon. The study
identified 238 police departments that tape entire interrogations in
serious cases. According to the Justice Department, there are 18,000
separate state and local law enforcement units nationwide.
Four states and the District of Columbia require the electronic
recording of interrogations, though laws in two of the states,
Illinois and Maine, have not yet taken effect. Courts in
Massachusetts and Wisconsin are considering the question, and at
least 21 states have considered legislation on it in the last three
Some law enforcement officials fear that taping may chill the candor
of suspects. State laws vary about whether suspects must be informed
that they are being recorded, and many law enforcement officials say
they prefer to have the option of recording interrogations
Amy Klobuchar, the county attorney in Minneapolis and a proponent of
taping, said the police must be able to record without telling
suspects they are doing so.
"You want to do it so that you're not interfering with the normal
interrogation," she said.
But Mr. Sullivan found that most police departments that tape
interrogations inform the suspect first, and that almost all turn off
the recording device if asked to do so.
Another frequent objection is that jurors may not react favorably if
they are shown how information is obtained. But Steven A. Drizin, a
law professor at Northwestern, said jurors were not offended by
effective police work.
"Jurors are conditioned," he said, "from years of watching Andy
Sipowicz on 'N.Y.P.D. Blue' to know that interrogations are not a
pretty process. They will cut police a lot of slack if the resulting
confessions are true."
Some police officials questioned the cost of outfitting interrogation
rooms with recording equipment and training personnel in its use.
Ms. Klobuchar estimated that videotaping equipment cost about $3,500
per interrogation room and that storage and other associated costs
ran about $2,000 per police department per year.
She said she believed that the benefits outweighed the costs.
Defendants are less likely to seek to suppress taped confessions, she
said, adding that taping can help avoid police misconduct suits as
Mr. Sullivan, who is now with Jenner & Block, a Chicago law firm,
said that judges preferred videotapes to having to decide among
"The motions to suppress - they're gone," Mr. Sullivan said,
referring to jurisdictions in which taping is routine. "The judges
love it. They don't have to listen to who-shot-John for two days."
The study found that electronic recordings replace note-taking, which
can distract detectives from the interview itself. They also create a
comprehensive record that can be mined for clues later.
The recordings can also be effective, the study said, in showing
jurors how defendants looked and acted during an interview, which is
particularly useful if their stories evolve as the trial approaches.
Professor Drizin said recordings could help judges give legal
guidance to law enforcement officials.
"Taping will enable courts to define for police departments what is
and is not acceptable coercion in the interview environment," he
said. "Without a tape, courts don't really have a full appreciation
of the dynamics of the interview process."