The Case for Videotaping Police Interrogations


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.