A Victory for Justice: Federal Law Enforcement to Record Interrogations

What happens in police interrogation rooms used to stay in police interrogation rooms. And though recording these potentially high-stress conversations has become more standard in local and state proceedings, the federal government had barred investigators from recording interrogations until this week. Now, the government says federal law enforcement will be required to video record interviews with suspects, in a move that could reduce the incidence of false confessions and questionable interrogation practices, while affirming the solidity of truly “good” cases.

In 2006, the F.B.I. outlined a policy banning the recording of interrogations. The concern, in their eyes, was that recording sessions could prevent suspects from talking and good paint agents in a negative light. Ironically, for those who support video-recorded interrogations, they are the very same issues that need to be brought out—coerced confessions and “bad” agents.

In 25% of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence there was a false confession, according to the Innocence Project, a group that advocates for mandatory interrogation recordings.

video_surveillance_laws“In some false confession cases, details of the crime are inadvertently communicated to a suspect by police during questioning,” the Innocence Project explains on their website. “Later, when a suspect knows these details, the police take the knowledge as evidence of guilt. Often, threats or promises are made to the suspect off camera and then the camera is turned on for a false confession. Without an objective record of the custodial interrogation, it is difficult to gauge the reliability of the confession.”

But recording interrogations isn’t only for the benefit of defendants, as the Justice Department now seems to recognize.

“The most difficult part of proving a crime is the state of mind, and that is almost always obtained through a statement of the suspect,” said Paul K. Charlton, a former U.S. attorney in Arizona who was ultimately fired for speaking out against the recording ban in 2007.

“It was an unjustifiable policy,” Charlton said. “I think this is one of the most significant improvements in the criminal justice system in a long time.”

The new federal policy is similar to those being used in local and state police interrogation rooms across the country. While not everyone is on board yet, the federal change could encourage formerly-resistant agencies to rethink their approach.

“Creating an electronic record will ensure that we have an objective account of key investigations and interactions with people who are held in federal custody,” said Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in a video statement. “It will allow us to document that detained individuals are afforded their constitutionally protected rights.”

Also, according to the New York Times, “Mr. Holder said the new practice would provide law enforcement officials ‘with a backstop, so that they have clear and indisputable records of important statements and confessions made by individuals who have been detained.’”

Transparency in the criminal justice system has been a long-standing problem. Like cameras worn by police officers, when the procedures that could ultimately send someone to prison for years are open to the public, so to speak, it encourages accountability from everyone involved.

About David Matson