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Lights, Camera, Justice: The Value of Recording Police Interrogations

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INTERROGATION ROOM
Mark Evans via Getty Images

The 2012 documentary The Central Park Five recounts the wrongful conviction of five teenage boys in the 1989 rape and assault of a female jogger in New York City. They were convicted solely on the basis of their videotaped confessions, which -- though detailed and compelling -- were ultimately found to be false. After six to 13 years in prison, they were exonerated in 2002 when the true perpetrator -- an imprisoned serial rapist -- came forward and matched DNA taken from the jogger. The boys, now men, are currently seeking restitution from the city.

Unfortunately, their story is not an anomaly. Of the 316 known cases in which innocent people have been exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing, nearly 30 percent are attributable to false confessions. These cases are the product of failures at two stages of the criminal-justice process. First, an innocent person confesses during a high-pressure police interrogation to crimes that he or she did not commit. Second, judges and jurors view the defendant's confession (but not the interrogation that preceded it), and regard it as voluntary and persuasive, even when it is false.

These two problems can be addressed with one simple reform: All custodial police interrogations should be recorded in their entirety.

Currently, 19 states mandate the recording of interrogations for certain crimes, and hundreds of other police departments have voluntarily adopted the practice. Just last week, the U.S. Department of Justice reversed its longstanding ban on recording by requiring that custodial interrogations be videotaped. However, many other departments -- including the NYPD -- remain slow to implement recording as standard procedure. Instead, they customarily videotape only suspects' confessions -- just as they did in the jogger case 25 years ago.

The recording of interrogations protects suspects by inhibiting the use of coercive tactics known to promote false confessions. In a recent issue of Law and Human Behavior, Saul Kassin and I, and other colleagues, published the results of an NSF-funded field experiment in which experienced police officers were filmed by a hidden camera while questioning suspects who were either guilty or innocent of a simulated crime. Some officers were told in advance that their interrogation would be videotaped; others were not. We found that interrogators who were told that their sessions would be taped were less likely to use certain high-pressure interrogation techniques, such as threatening the suspect and promising leniency in exchange for a confession. They were also better able to correctly determine the suspect's guilt or innocence.

Recording also benefits police. Survey data from hundreds of law enforcement agencies that record their interrogations shows that officers overwhelmingly support the practice and laud its many benefits. They explained that recording keeps them free to focus on the suspect rather than on taking copious notes during an interrogation. It also enables them to later review the tapes, which may reveal important details that were initially overlooked. Finally, they noted that recording has reduced unwarranted allegations of misconduct, and when such allegations do arise, they are now easier to refute. Summarizing the results of these surveys, one researcher explained having "yet to encounter one law enforcement officer who desires to return to non-recorded interviews."

Recording should also improve the accuracy of fact-finding at trial. In the Central Park-Jogger case, the boys were interrogated off-camera for between 14 to 30 hours before giving videotaped confession statements. What happened during this time became the subject of much dispute: the boys claimed to have been slapped, threatened, fed details of the crime and told that they were being questioned only as witnesses, while police denied these claims. If jurors are able to view these interrogations for themselves, such dispute becomes unnecessary. Access to an unabridged recording would give jurors a better sense of how the confession came about, and in this case, may have prevented a miscarriage of justice.

Two common objections to recording have been expressed. The first is that recording will be logistically and/or financially difficult for police. In an age where the average cell phone comes equipped with audio- and video-recording devices, this position is untenable. The second is that the presence of a camera will inhibit suspects, making it harder for police to obtain confessions from perpetrators. There exists no empirical evidence for this claim, and surveys of interrogators who routinely record suggest that recording does not impede them. In "one-party consent" states, where suspects need not be informed that they are being recorded, this concern is moot.

Wrongful convictions are costly to defendants. They are costly to taxpayers. They are costly to public safety, insofar as they enable the true perpetrator to victimize others. The man who attacked the Central Park Jogger, for example, raped two other women (and murdered one) after the boys were arrested and the case was deemed closed. In contrast, recording interrogations carries little cost and many benefits, including greater public confidence in our justice system. Willfully denying juries access to this information is irresponsible and antithetical to justice. It's time to prove that we've learned from our mistakes.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the producers of "The Central Park Five," a film that documents the wrongful convictions of five New York City youths. A $250 million wrongful-conviction lawsuit filed by the Central Park Five has yet to be settled. To see all the other posts in the series, visit here. For more information about the film -- or the book that inspired it -- visit here.