Police Abuse

The Case for Videotaping Police Interrogations

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Last week in the L.A. Times, Washington, D.C. police Detective Jim Trainum wrote an op-ed explaining how he never believed someone could confess to a crime they didn't commit—until a suspect he was interrogating did exactly that:

Even the suspect's attorney later told me that she believed her client was guilty, based on the confession. Confident in our evidence and the confession, we charged her with first-degree murder.

Then we discovered that the suspect had an ironclad alibi. We subpoenaed sign-in/sign-out logs from the homeless shelter where she lived, and the records proved that she could not have committed the crime. The case was dismissed, but all of us still believed she was involved in the murder. After all, she had confessed.

Even though it wasn't our standard operating procedure in the mid-1990s, when the crime occurred, we had videotaped the interrogation in its entirety. Reviewing the tapes years later, I saw that we had fallen into a classic trap. We ignored evidence that our suspect might not have been guilty, and during the interrogation we inadvertently fed her details of the crime that she repeated back to us in her confession.

If we hadn't discovered and verified the suspect's alibi—or if we hadn't recorded the interrogation—she probably would have been convicted of first-degree murder and would be in prison today. The true perpetrator of the crime was never identified, partly because the investigation was derailed when we focused on an innocent person. 

If by-the-books interrogations like Trainum's can elicit a false confession, it isn't difficult to see how more coercive questioning could as well.  California's legislature has twice passed a bill requiring the police to videotape interrogations.  Both bills were vetoed by Gov. Schwarzenegger after lobbying from the state's police and prosecutors.  A third attempt to pass a bill died in committee this year.

Last year, I criticized Schwarzenegger for vetoing one of those bills, and also for vetoing two other sensible criminal justice reforms.

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  1. Most cops are crooks and no better than the criminals they pursue.

    Jiff
    http://www.anonymity.cz.tc

  2. It is legal to lie to a suspect. What cops do is make up the evidence. They get someone in a room and say “look we found your fingerprints at the scene and I have two witnesses that say you bragged about it. If you would just come clean and admit it, we can work this thing out”. After a few hours of this kind of talk, they convince people that they are screwed anyway and are better off admitting to something they didn’t do than they are fighting it and getting really screwed. Everyone says, “oh I would never do that”. Maybe you would maybe you wouldn’t. Until you have been in that situation facing the pressure of the police and the thought of going to jail, you just don’t know. Certainly, people who do not fully understand the justice system and how hard it is to prove things and have weak personalities are pretty likely to crack and admit to something they didn’t do.

    I never believed in false confessions either until I was a defense attorney and saw one. They absolutely happen.

  3. Illinois passed one of the first laws requiring the police videopage confessions and interrogations of homicide suspects.

    It was written by a youns state senator from the South Side of Chicago.

  4. When your mind set in the beginning is you have the guilty party,this is bound to happen.They use methods ,not to get the truth,but to get a confession.Those are two different goals.We see this all the time in DUI cases it seem.Road tests are made to fail .Now,in Miami and Texas,thousands of DUI’S are in doubt due to fraud in breath tests.The goal is arrest and convict,not serve and protect.

  5. Some police departments videotape interrogations because it protects cops against false claims of abuse, coercion, etc.

  6. I’m sure this woman was probably borderline retarded too.

  7. Then we discovered that the suspect had an ironclad alibi. We subpoenaed sign-in/sign-out logs from the homeless shelter where she lived, and the records proved that she could not have committed the crime. The case was dismissed, but all of us still believed she was involved in the murder. After all, she had confessed.

    It seems like this step should come before interrogating the suspect with a confession in mind.

  8. When your mind set in the beginning is you have the guilty party,this is bound to happen.They use methods ,not to get the truth,but to get a confession.

    This dynamic has bedevilled our national security policy for the past seven years, too. We got confirmation of ongoing Iraqi WMD programs and al Qaeda training from suspect who were interrogated with the aim of getting them to admit to something the interrogators (or their bosses) thought they already knew.

  9. Sleep deprivation can make you believe some pretty strange things. Many times, these confessions are on day 2 of interrogation with no breaks, no sleep.

  10. D.C. police Detective Jim Trainum wrote an op-ed explaining how he never believed someone could confess to a crime they didn’t commit

    How could anyone over the age of 12 possibly be that naive?

  11. joe,

    It was written by a youns state senator from the South Side of Chicago.

    Sounds like the kind of guy we need in state government.

  12. We should also video traffic stops, SWAT team raids, and, as much as possible, any other confrontation between law enforcement and citizens.

  13. The funny thing is that many of the same people who want perpetual camera surveillance of the public do not want any record to exist of the activities of law enforcement.

    Hmmm…what could explain this…hmmmm….

  14. California’s legislature has twice passed a bill requiring the police to videotape interrogations. Both bills were vetoed by Gov. Schwarzenegger after lobbying from the state’s police and prosecutors. [emphasis added]

    I am completely at a loss to explain any good faith reasoning that would lead the law enforcement community to oppose tranparency in the plice interrogation proess. Law and order types (police and prosecutors) love to trot out the old saw “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about” when defending the use of questionable searches, traffic stops, checkpoints, surveillance, wiretaps, etc. Gander, meet goose. She’s a highly pissed at the moment.

    This is an account of an interrogation that was viddied. I can only speculate on the way the untaped ones are conducted. If I am ever on a jury where an untaped interrogation produced confession is submitted as evidence, I will completely disregard it.

    Oh yeah, somebody please tell me again why AHHnold is considered by some to be libertarian leaning.

  15. LarryA –
    you mean between law enforcement and criminals right? Why would you want to give any protection to scumbag criminals the police are pursuing?

    /”they’re heros” American sentiment

  16. Oh yeah, somebody please tell me again why AHHnold is considered by some to be libertarian leaning.

    I don’t believe anyone thinks that anymore.

  17. Good faith opposition could come from people who know how to use a camera to give a false impression of what’s going on in the room. I’d want at least four working cameras, one high in each corner, each framed to cover the opposing two walls as well as the table in the center, and each feeding three recording devices (one for the prosecution, one for the defense, one for the court), even lighting, ….

    I suspect that most of it is from people who don’t want any record, though, and wonder why it is that they don’t? (Not really wondering, btw.)

  18. Umm…if police are forced to videotape interrogations how are they supposed to beat those extra tough confessions out of people without putting themselves at risk?

  19. I suspect that most of it is from people who don’t want any record, though, and wonder why it is that they don’t?

    Suspect? Wonder why?

    htom is apparently given to understatements.

  20. I’d say, robc, that someone who is aware of and concerned about the possibility of error or malice in the operations of government, who recognizes the need for systemic checks rather than relying on the people in positions of authority to do the right thing, who can formulate practical solutions to address the problem, and who can bring people together to implement effective solutions, is the sort of person we need at all levels of the government.

    It would have been nice so have such a person as Vice President for the past seven and a half years, no?

  21. The true perpetrator of the crime was never identified, partly because the investigation was derailed when we focused on an innocent person.

    It’s bad enough possibly putting an innocent person behind bars. Keeping the guilty person free to commit more crimes makes such errors even worse.

  22. joe,

    At the highest levels of government, I prefer hard-core federalists. The kind that would veto a roads bill because it isnt a constitutionally mentioned power. The other traits you mention might be nice, but are secondary.

  23. that someone who is aware of and concerned about the possibility of error or malice in the operations of government, who recognizes the need for systemic checks rather than relying on the people in positions of authority to do the right thing

    Thats why Im voting for Bob Barr.

  24. robc,

    Well, robc, there are a lot of things I’d like to see in a president other than what I listed at 11:56, too, including a close adherence to my own political philosophy.

    Still, that’s not a bad batch of characteristics in its own right.

  25. All police should be under surveillance for all duties performed for all hours worked.

  26. It was written by a youns state senator from the South Side of Chicago.

    8 days before the election we finally get to hear of one of his legislative accomplishments.

    Regarding the taping of interrogations and confessions, I am totally in favor of this. I don’t see any downside other than cops can’t beat a confession out of a suspect any more.

  27. I agree with the predominant point that if the guberrmint can set up cameras everywhere to catch you, than they can set up cameras in the interrogation room. I remember during the Marth Stewart trial that it depended on contradictory handwritten FBI notes.
    But they really is it, isn’t it – you can’t pin gubermint officials down.

  28. The Seattle Police had a pilot program where the beat officers were wearing a small camera on their uniform with a hard drive connected to it. I thought it was a great idea, but guess who didn’t? The police union. And guess how many cops are wearing those cameras today? Zero.

  29. I thought it was a great idea, but guess who didn’t? The police union.

    Police unions are at the forefront in the campaign to protect police misconduct from being detected and prosecuted.

    Duh!

  30. The cool thing was that the officer turned the exonerating evidence over to the court. Plenty of cops would have suppressed it. Imagine! An honest cop!

  31. “””It is legal to lie to a suspect.”””

    Yes, and I always say, you can’t trust anyone who has the legal ability to lie. Why should they be honest?

    “”””Police unions are at the forefront in the campaign to protect police misconduct from being detected and prosecuted.”””

    Yeah, the head of the PBA in NYC was making shit up as to why it was Louima’s fault the cop sexually assaulted him.

  32. I will credit Obama for his efforts to get better due process for the accused. Hopefully he will spend most of his time working on Radley’s issues and little time confiscating my wealth. But I doubt I’ll be that lucky.

  33. Unsubstantive Kurt,

    A quick spin through the archives suggests that I first brought up Obama’s bill about videotaping interrogations in February.

  34. Funny, though. Given Obama’s fairly short and thin resume, you’d think he’d tout whatever he had managed to accomplish so far.

    But he’s never mentioned this, AFAIK. Make of that what you will.

  35. Joe,

    My comment wasn’t directed at you.

    I was just curious as to why the Obama campaign had not mentioned this.

    As Mr Dean says, the resume is mighty thin. Why not tout this?

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