Trends in recording police interviews

Tired of the debate over who said what, many agencies use new digital technology to record all interviews of suspects, victims and witnesses.

     Consider the following scenario, which may sound familiar to many in law enforcement: A man is arrested in relation to a sexual assault investigation and questioned without a lawyer. After being indicted for the crime, he retains a lawyer. As part of the discovery process, the lawyer is informed that the police had given the defendant Miranda warnings (which he waived), that he had agreed to talk to the police without legal representation, and that he had subsequently confessed to the crime. Based on this information and after meeting with his client, the defense attorney files a motion to suppress the confession, stating that the police did not give Miranda warnings, that they denied the defendant's request for a lawyer, and that they used coercive tactics and threats to force a false confession.

     Since the interview was not recorded, the defendant's lawyer can say what he or she wants, and the police officers can't offer evidence to the contrary. The result is an endless he-said-we-said debate that is tiresome to all. Ultimately, because the burden of proof rests on the prosecution, and they are not able to disprove the defendant's claims, the suspect cannot be convicted. Sound familiar? Tired of such unfruitful back-and-forth debate, agencies nationwide are quickly adopting policies — either voluntarily or by way of court order — that require recording the interviews of suspects, victims and witnesses.

The recording trend

     One of the biggest issues faced by law enforcement officials — and the reason an increasing number of agencies are recording interrogations in their entirety — relates to allegations that mistreatment of a suspect by officers resulted in a coerced confession. As recently as October 2006, a United States District Court awarded $9 million in damages to Alejandro Dominguez, who spent four years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

     In other cases, fear of bad publicity and the possibility of paying exorbitant amounts in damages leads to out-of-court settlements that can range from several thousands to several millions of dollars.

     Cities and counties across the country, including Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles and Houston, have encountered situations where they have been faced with lawsuits for wrongful arrests, coercion, physical and verbal abuse, and police brutality. Recording the entire interview significantly reduces such allegations, which saves the municipality and the taxpayers a lot of money. The investment in reliable, high-quality recording solutions is recouped in a relatively short amount of time, which is an attractive proposition for the decision-makers in this market. Thus, the advantages offered by this practice, both tangible and otherwise, can far exceed the initial costs associated with equipment installation and user training.

     Yet, the picture isn't all rosy. One obstacle faced by proponents of recording involves changing the mindset of law enforcement agencies and getting them to realize the value of the process. Non-believers take the stance that if a suspect knows he or she is being recorded, it will be harder to elicit a confession. Respected practitioners of recording in this field respond to this claim by citing the era when Miranda rulings came into effect in 1966, and the subsequent belief that law enforcement personnel would never get another admission of guilt from the suspect; in reality, though, people still volunteered information despite being given Miranda warnings — the same is true of recording interviews and interrogations in their entirety.

The impact of technology

     It is interesting to note that the only major advancement in interview-room technology relates to using digital video recorders (DVRs) in place of analog video recorders. Unlike weaponry, which has enjoyed a variety of technological advancements over the years, almost no attention has been paid to upgrading interview rooms. As a result, it wasn't until recently that companies have begun to focus their efforts on developing products specifically for this application.

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