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With the number of DNA exonerations on the rise in recent years, law enforcement officials have had to face an uncomfortable truth: wrongful convictions are often based on false confessions they obtained during stationhouse interrogations.
The District Attorneys Association of the State of New York is hoping that video technology will prove a straightforward and effective remedy. Earlier this month, the group announced a joint effort with state and local police and sheriffs’ associations to promote full video recording of all police interrogations, along with statewide recording protocol “to ensure the integrity of the practice.”
Their efforts follow in the footsteps of lawmakers across the country, according to a report from the New York County Lawyers’ Association. Statutes requiring the recording of interrogations in their entirety have been introduced in a number of legislatures and have already been adopted in Illinois and in the District of Columbia. Alaska and Minnesota, meanwhile, require video recording based on judicial opinions.
In the past, only summary statements from suspects were recorded, according to the New York Law Journal. But police have come to realize that video can capture not only the exact words of the investigator and defendant, but also subtle, unspoken nuances. Videos of the entire interrogation can shed light on the conduct of both the questioner and the questioned, which in turn can help weed out false confessions. As a recent American Bar Association publication points out, recordings allow judges and juries to scrutinize interrogation tactics firsthand, rather than having to hear about it later through the potentially biased testimony of the investigator.
Unfortunately, implementation of this technology can be costly. New York State’s Division of Criminal Justice Services has so far invested about $2 million in federal grant money to help all jurisdictions outfit themselves; but a handful of the state’s 62 counties are still without recording capabilities.
A secondary–and perhaps more pressing–concern is the manner in which individual investigators in various jurisdictions choose to implement video technology. The unified protocol that has been drafted in New York still allows for a great deal of discretion. For example, each jurisdiction has discretion to determine which offenses qualify for recording, as it is logistically impossible with most departments’ existing facilities and staffing to record interrogations for all felonies and all misdemeanors.
So how will we know that investigators are applying the policy in an even-handed manner? What if, eager to wrap up an investigation, an officer edits a recording so it shows only what he wants it to show? While video seems to be a step in the right direction, I find it hard to believe that this technology alone will be enough to police those police who are determined to convict their targeted defendants at all costs.
– Lauren Gregory
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