Taping of Interrogations Is Praised by Police
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 only audio.
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 years.
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 surreptitiously.
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 well.
Mr. Sullivan, who is now with Jenner & Block, a Chicago law firm, said that judges preferred videotapes to having to decide among conflicting stories.
"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."