Police Are Rethinking Tactics As More Law Agencies Move to Taped Interrogations

Smile and Say 'Fess Up:
To many investigators, a camera changes the dynamics.

By Stephanie Simon, Los Angeles Times

Former policeman Dave Zulawski now trains law officers in the finer points of taped interrogations. "Remember, everything you do will be on tape for God and everyone else to see," he told one group. (By Anthony Robert La Penna/LA Times)
Trevor Lahey knows how to play the mind games that compel suspects to confess.

The other day, he was called in to grill a man suspected of beating his 2-year-old stepdaughter raw. "I told him, I know how kids can be. They get on your nerves so much, sometimes you want to beat" them senseless, he said. "Next thing you know, he dropped his head and confessed."

A sheriff's deputy in rural Morgan County, Lahey has learned to treat the most repellent criminals like buddies. He talks to them as if he knows what it's like to smack the wife or pin the girl down for sex, because after all, she wanted it, didn't she, pal? The tactic works. But Lahey is feeling pressure to find a strategy that's "more politically correct," as he puts it. Because soon, many of his interrogations will be recorded, start to finish.

For the first time, what he says in that cramped interview room will be scrutinized as much as the suspect's response. "That scares me a little," Lahey said.

Stung by allegations of police brutality and coerced confessions, Illinois will require all law enforcement officers to record their interrogations in homicide cases starting in summer 2005. All interrogations of juvenile suspects must also be recorded on video- or audiotape.

Minnesota and Alaska have had similar policies for years, and taping mandates are now under consideration in Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine and New Jersey. The California Assembly last year approved a bill encouraging videotaped interrogations; it did not pass the Senate. As momentum for the concept builds, more than a dozen law-enforcement agencies -- from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Prince George's County, Md. -- have decided not to wait for statewide requirements, but to begin recording interrogations in their most serious felony cases.

Proponents insist that detectives have nothing to worry about: If they're doing everything by the book, why should they care if a hidden camera records them?

But to many investigators, the camera fundamentally changes the dynamics of an interrogation. Officers are used to conducting interviews in private, or perhaps with a partner, then summarizing the tense hours of back-and-forth in a few curt paragraphs. With a camera rolling, the windowless interview room is suddenly open to the world.

Investigators must consider how their tactics will play before a jury. And how a defense lawyer might pick apart their words.

"We're no longer just detectives now. We have to be actors ... and we have to be attorneys," said Master Sgt. Steve Johnson, chief investigator for the Sheriff's Department in St. Clair County, Ill.

Consider a child-molestation case: To gain rapport with the suspect, an officer might suggest the child made up the abuse, or exaggerated the story to get attention, or took a friendly gesture the wrong way. Anything to get the suspect talking about his contact with the victim.

Off tape, that's no big deal. Recorded and played back to jurors, however, it could undermine the case, because it might sound as though the investigating officer didn't truly believe the victim's story.

"If you assassinate the character of the victim on tape, that can be damaging," said Sgt. Neil Nelson, a detective in St. Paul, Minn., where interrogations have been recorded since 1994. "If you say something on tape, it in some way becomes true."

Nelson recalls a Minnesota case in which a man allegedly beat his wife to death by whipping her with an extension cord and bashing her head with a tire iron. The suspect admitted the whipping, explaining that his wife liked rough sex. That was as far as he would go.

Trying to goad the suspect by mocking his story, "the investigator must have said 30 times during the interview, 'C'mon, you can't kill someone by whipping them on the butt,' " Nelson said.

When the autopsy came back, however, the fatal blows did turn out to have come from the extension cord: The victim bled to death from internal bruises.

"When you had the officer on tape saying over and over, there's no way you can kill someone by whipping them, it took away from the intent part of the case," Nelson said. The taped remarks opened the door for the defense to claim the death was accidental, not premeditated. As it turned out, the wife had so many injuries that the jury didn't buy it; the husband was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

A Cautionary Tale

But Nelson uses the case as a cautionary tale in seminars he holds across the nation to train officers in camera-friendly interview techniques.

"I tell my classes, 'On tape, your words live forever,' " Nelson said.

At a recent seminar here in central Illinois, former Barrington Police Officer Dave Zulawski, now a consultant, echoed that warning. Handing copies of the recording law to 25 students from several law-enforcement agencies, he told them: "Remember, everything you do will be on tape for God and everyone else to see."

Lahey, wary and intent, flipped through the pages of legal jargon and considered the advice.

He'll have to cut out his crude buddy-buddy patter, he said later during a coffee break. "No one in the courtroom is going to want to hear an officer talk like that." Another successful tactic -- thundering at a suspect that the police have no doubt is guilty -- also may have to go. "I can just see the defense attorney saying I'm bullying," he said with evident frustration.

To avoid even the appearance of threatening the suspect, investigators who conduct interviews on camera have learned to remove their gun holsters before entering an interrogation room. They make a point of remaining seated, rather than pacing in angry circles. To preempt claims of mistreatment, they give suspects breaks more often and offer food more frequently now.

Perhaps the most significant -- and difficult -- adjustment is learning to weigh every word before speaking, Zulawski told his students. Most officers are used to spontaneity in the interview room, going with their instincts as they try to cajole or trick a suspect into confessing. No more.

When a judge can review every word they say, every phrase must be precise. For instance, a judge may rule a detective out of bounds for urging a suspect: "Tell me what happened and we'll try to get you some help." That sounds a lot like a promise of leniency, which is illegal.

But phrasing the same offer as a more neutral statement of fact -- "in cases like this, judges sometimes send the perpetrator to counseling" -- may well pass muster, said Zulawski, who co-founded the training firm Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates, based in Downers Grove, Ill.

"There's a fine line. Be careful what you say in there," Zulawski told his students. "Is the defense going to try to turn your words against you? Of course they are. That's their job."

Although they make a living warning officers about the pitfalls of recording interrogations, both Nelson and Zulawski favor the practice. They view the tapes as powerful tools to help solve cases -- and to guard against police brutality.

A growing number of prosecutors and defense attorneys agree, as do more and more investigators. Some have taken to recording their interrogations even if their departments don't require it, to protect themselves against accusations of abuse.

"It's done nothing but help us in getting back the credibility of police," said Capt. Jim Stover of the Police Department in O'Fallon, Ill., which has begun taping more than a year ahead of the state requirement.

"Any detective who doesn't do it is crazy," said Los Angeles Police Sgt. Donovan Nickerson, who routinely tapes his interrogations, although the LAPD does not require it.

In jurisdictions that have long required taped interrogations, authorities say critics' fears are overblown.

Jurors have proved willing to accept most interrogation tactics, including lying to a suspect, feigning sympathy for his actions, even cursing at him. And the cameras can pay unexpected dividends. They capture nervous tics, flushed faces and other behavioral clues that an officer scribbling notes may miss.

More telling still: a suspect's actions when he thinks he's alone in the room.

Most law-enforcement agencies do not require officers to tell a suspect he's being taped. Hidden in a clock or a light fixture, the pinhole-size camera lenses have recorded suspects scrambling to get their alibis straight -- even using their cellphones to make sure evidence has been destroyed -- as they wait for their interrogator to arrive.

In Hennepin County, Minn., authorities recall a suspect who told police he couldn't possibly have dismembered a corpse, because he was blind. When the officer left the room, he started reading a paper.

In Broward County, Fla., the suspect in a hatchet murder case stymied detectives with his steadfast denials. Frustrated, the interviewer walked out, saying he was going to get a DNA expert to scrape under the suspect's fingernails for traces of blood. As soon as the door closed, the suspect began sucking his nails furiously.

"A jury loves that stuff," said Sgt. Bob O'Neil, supervisor of Broward County's homicide unit.

Even without a "gotcha" moment on camera, having a complete record of an interview can take the pressure off detectives to get a confession. "Sometimes, it's just as persuasive for jurors to watch a suspect lie when you confront him with the truth," O'Neil said.

The Right Questions

But learning to frame questions that expose a suspect's lies -- rather than simply badgering him to confess -- is a major adjustment for most interrogators.

They're trained to regard a confession as the gold standard of proof. When Zulawski asked his students at the Springfield seminar how many had solved a case with DNA or fingerprints or handwriting analysis, only two or three raised their hands. When he asked who had solved a case with a confession, nearly every arm shot up.

"You can take all the forensics, all the "CSI" shows in the world, but what gets you the most bang for the buck?" Zulawski asked, to approving nods. "You talk to folks. You establish rapport. And they give us information."

Methodically questioning a suspect with the goal of exposing contradictions, not extracting an admission of guilt, "is a new way of doing business," said Susan Gaertner, the prosecutor for Ramsey County, Minn. "But on balance, it's worth it."

Advocates of taping often suggest that the only real opposition comes from officers who want to apply illegal pressure. They have little sympathy for investigators who worry that a careless slip of the tongue, captured on video, could let a criminal off the hook.

"The answer to that isn't to give the officers some wiggle room so they can make mistakes and it won't make a difference. The answer is to get them better training so they don't make the mistakes," said Devallis Rutledge, a former prosecutor from Orange County, who teaches interrogation law to departments across the country.

True, a single flubbed word in the Miranda warning -- which advises suspects of their rights -- can invalidate an entire interrogation. Still, Rutledge said, that's no reason to resist recording the procedure so a judge can see if Miranda was delivered properly. "We're not supposed to be getting away with stuff like that in the first place," he said. "Interrogation is a technical business. People have to know what they're doing."

The American Bar Assn. last month unanimously endorsed a resolution urging that interrogations in all cases be recorded. The national union representing more than 300,000 police officers backs a similar policy.

"I would be surprised if, within two years, it wasn't common practice throughout the country," said Saul Kassin, chairman of the legal studies department at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.

"In a democratic society that values fair procedures and values truth, there's simply no compelling reason not to do it," added Richard Leo, a criminology professor at UC Irvine.

Trevor Lahey, the sheriff's deputy in west-central Illinois, understands the benefits of taping -- in theory. And yet, he gets nervous thinking about it.

When he told the abuse suspect a few weeks back that he knew what it was like to want to beat a child, "I walked out of there feeling dirtier than he did," Lahey recalled.

"I sure wouldn't want to put that on tape."

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