By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Calling the issue "a matter of national concern," a Northwestern University law school report says police officers could better serve justice by taking a simple step: tape-recording interrogations in serious criminal cases.
Audio or video recordings of suspects' interviews would prevent misrepresentations of what happened during questioning, says Northwestern's Center on Wrongful Convictions in a report released today. Yet many U.S. police agencies - including some in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky - do not routinely electronically record suspects' statements about homicides, armed robberies, sex crimes and assaults with weapons.
"Recording interrogations, not merely confessions, will substantially reduce the dual problems of false confessions that lead to convictions of the innocent and false accusations of police misconduct that lead to acquittals of the guilty," said Rob Warden, the center's executive director. "Despite the benefits, some police agencies have been extremely reluctant to even experiment with the process."
While police in Erlanger use video cameras to capture every enforcement and investigative action, some police departments in the region use little or no recording equipment. They cite concerns about cost, convenience and equipment malfunctions. Others said they think the presence of recording devices might intimidate some talkative suspects into silence.
But 238 police agencies in 38 states have found the practice valuable - and most fears unfounded.
"Virtually every officer with whom we spoke, having given custodial recordings a try, was enthusiastically in favor of the practice," the Northwestern center report said.
Based on those findings - and on the pervasiveness of recording devices in everyday life - the center is urging courts and law agencies to consider requiring recording of in-custody interviews in all major felony cases - from the time an officer informs a suspect of his rights until the interrogation is over.
Terry Weber, a Hamilton County assistant public defender, is concerned about the untaped statement his 14-year-old client gave to police about a Cincinnati homicide.
"How do you prove my client's side of what he said if there is not an audio or video recording of the actual event?" Weber asked.
When police do tape interviews, they sometimes delay turning on the recorder until a point when they believe the suspect is telling the truth, Weber said. "If you're not going to cover the entire interrogation, the entire discussion, that's simply not fair," he said.
John E. Murphy, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said defense attorneys do and will always attack a suspect interview.
"In my opinion, (tape-recording) is not the panacea it's held out to be," he said.
Butler County Prosecutor Robin Piper says tape-recorded interviews present practical difficulties, as well.
Officers may spend a long time building rapport before getting to the meat of an interview, he said, loading a tape with extraneous information. "You stand the risk of boring a jury, because a jury wants to get to the bottom of things," Piper said.
Also, written statements are more efficient to use in confronting witnesses. "It's easy to hand them a page or two or three and say, 'Now, weren't these your words?' " Piper said.
That's hard to do with tapes, he said.
Last week, a Butler County jury convicted Jason Sam Campbell, 22, in a double homicide, largely based on a confession that Hamilton police Lt. Scott Scrimizzi typed into a laptop computer. Scrimizzi said he allowed Campbell to read his statement and edit it before signing it. That procedure guarantees fairness and accuracy, Piper said.
Campbell's lawyers didn't dispute the statement's contents. But they questioned why Scrimizzi didn't use an audio or video recorder. Scrimizzi said he was following past practice.
"Our policy doesn't really make any provision for videotape," said Hamilton Police Chief Neil Ferdelman.
But neither is it forbidden, so Ferdelman said he would be willing to consider the Northwestern report's findings in consultation with Piper's office.
Some police departments have routinely recorded statements for decades. For at least four years, Cincinnati police who handle major felony investigations have operated under a policy calling for electronic recordings of every person interviewed "except in exigent circumstances or when doing so is likely to compromise the interview or the information gained (from it)."
Lt. Kurt Byrd, Cincinnati police spokesman, said officers are allowed to stop recording if a suspect appears uncomfortable or stops talking because of the recording.
"Some people just don't like being recorded. ... And you'd be remiss if you failed to get the information," Byrd said. Otherwise, "Why wouldn't you want it on tape? If the guy's willing to do it, why wouldn't you want to put it there?"
Erlanger police began comprehensive recordings in 2002.
"We record everything, pretty much," said Marc Fields, Erlanger police chief. "There's no one incident that caused us to do this. It's just a national trend."
The full report is available at www.law.northwestern.edu
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