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.

     This change began a few years ago. In 2003, Illinois became the first state to enact legislation that requires electronic recording. Maine and New Mexico legislatures followed in 2004 and 2005.

     The new laws were drafted in part to respond to the growing concern of lawmakers and the public about innocent individuals being coerced and convicted of crimes they didn't commit. The much-publicized 1998 case of Michael Crowe is one example. Crowe was 14 years old when police interrogated him. He confessed to murdering his 12-year-old sister after the interrogator falsely described physical evidence against him. However, after watching a videotape of his entire interrogation, the pretrial judge determined that Crowe's confession was involuntary, and he was released. Later, DNA evidence helped police track the real killer.

     Trial and reviewing court judges favor electronic recordings of interviews for streamlining the judicial process by: (1) reducing the number of motions filed to suppress a confession by the defense, and (2) eliciting more guilty pleas, thereby avoiding the costs, time and resources associated with a jury trial. Both factors have resulted in more recording and content management solutions that specifically target interview rooms. Given the lower cost and greater flexibility associated with digital recording — for example, interviews can be stored and searched on a personal computer, network or external storage device — this method of capturing and accessing interview recordings is gaining popularity with buyers and sellers alike in this market.

Upgrading to digital solutions

     ForTheRecord's market research, conducted over several months, has led us to speak with users, buyers and well-respected authorities in this market to understand current business and operating procedures with respect to recording of custodial interrogations. Through such conversations, we have learned that the primary factors driving the adoption of digital recording technology in interview rooms include:

  • Poor recording quality offered by analog recorders that deteriorates over time.
  • Declining availability and serviceability of analog units.
  • Analog tapes are cumbersome to search and store.
  • Problems with flexibility and portability. Detectives are forced to review interview recordings at a particular location, which may be in use, rather than at their desks.
  • Use of video recorders typically requires additional, separate audio cassette recordings for transcription purposes.
  • Digital solutions are just as easy to operate, while offering greater benefits and cheaper storage options.
  • It is easier and more efficient to distribute recordings within and outside the investigation team.
  • Digital opens the door for streamlining and automating existing legal processes in the future.

     The last point is, in fact, a benefit that appeals to many agencies currently embracing digital technology: A digital implementation, especially when using network-based storage and archiving of audio and video content, is inherently scalable. For example, when an agency has a digital solution in place and needs more space for storing recorded audio-video content, all that needs to be added is another network server or other storage device — and the prices of those are steadily decreasing. In contrast, think about how analog users would deal with this situation. Early adopters of digital recording systems recognized the immense advantage of scalability and employ digital solutions whenever and wherever possible.

     A common misconception is that digital solutions are too complex and require extensive user training to operate. In fact, technology has advanced to the point where one can not only record high-quality audio and video with the push of a button but can also efficiently manage the resulting content with just as much ease. Systems can be refined, also, to offer additional capabilities to search, retrieve, copy, transfer and share recorded content — meaning that vast amounts of sensitive information can be managed in a simple fashion.

Where to go from here
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