Wednesday, December 26, 2007

If CIA can record interrogations, so should police

Over the holiday I put my finger on what's been bugging me about the national debate over the destruction of CIA recordings of interrogation sessions: If the CIA can record interrogations, why can't local police departments? Some jurisdictions already do.

It makes sense for the CIA to record interrogations because they're looking for intelligence, so they don't want to miss something said in passing might later become important.

More routine law enforcement benefits from a similar approach, but police interrogations in the United States rely on the "Reid technique," which takes an accusatory ("admit you did it") rather than an information gathering ("tell me what happened") approach toward the suspect. Interrogators using the Reid technique desire a confession, not necessarily information, and may not to want to record other parts of a defendant's statement (like denials) that might later confuse the jury.

There's little technological barrier today to recording interrogations, only official recalcitrance that serves no discernible public policy purpose. Recording custodial interrogations would be easier than ever - my niece received for Christmas a pocket video camera with which she can record and upload video to YouTube with incredible ease. (At eleven, she and a friend plan to launch their own podcast.)

When in 2001 the Legislature passed Texas' racial profiling statute requiring squad cars doing traffic enforcement to use cameras, many officers opposed the idea. Police unions said having cameras in their squad cars amounted to "Big Brother" watching over officers' every move. Now police know from practical experience that good cops all benefit from having cameras in the cars - both by verifying their version of events when motorists contradict their account, and by giving supervisors tools to weed out officers who abuse their authority at traffic stops. Today there's very little debate about whether recording traffic stops is a good idea.

I think the same thing would happen if police began recording custodial interrogations. Not only would they accumulate more evidence by recording full interrogations at the investigations' earliest stages, the recording protects police against false accusations, protects defendants against coerced confessions, and generally makes the justice system more transparent and accountable all the way around.

More information doesn't just benefit one side of the bar or another; instead it makes errors less likely by the system as a whole, which should be in everyone's interest. If the CIA can record custodial interrogations out in the Afghani hinterlands, there's no reason the local cops can't do the same thing where you live.

6 comments:

rage judicata said...

You know, I never gave much thought to this. On the two instances where I have been questioned by the police (Texas Rangers, actually) it was video taped. I know that's not the norm though.

Even if cops now generally accept it in cars, they won't for this. Much more at stake than your average traffic stop.

Daniel, USMC said...

Howdy Grits,

Agreed 100%. Nothing wrong in keeping them honest.

JSN said...

I am not so sure that all police are happy about video records of traffic stops. I do agree that a vide record does help them in a "he said she said case" on occasion and it helps a lot in getting a guilty plea in a DUI case.

Rose Colored Glasses said...

The cops would see it as a violation of their Fifth Amendment rights. Once a recording exists, unknown copies may survive after they have destroyed what they think is the only remaining evidence.

ZMan! said...

My question, is why are they even doing interrogations when the person has not talked with a lawyer?

IMO, even if the person decides to talk to the police, which IMO, is stupid any way you look at it, even if you are innocent, they should record ALL conversations, period.

So it's all on record on what took place, etc.

JT Barrie said...

I just don't accept that many judges - even in "liberal" Oregon accept the accused version over the "official" version supplied by police. It's never been that way when I went to court on traffic violations. In fact I got convicted once without any police testimony [they didn't see me do it]. That's a downside of being pathologically honest: the weather was so crappy I couldn't honestly say for sure that I didn't cross the line into the other lane at some point - especially when the lines weren't visible. So I ended up getting convicted of careless driving by default - due to horrific visibility.
I have since established both impeccable credibility and a healthy skepticism about police tactics that I would be both more observant and a likely target of police harassment such that incidences like that might prove problematic for judges and especially juries. It would be extremely bad tactics for police to "set me up" for a conviction.