States Tell Police to Turn on the Camera

By: - May 4, 2005 12:00 am

With a July deadline looming, law enforcement officials throughout Illinois are scrambling to comply with a new state law that requires police to record their in-house interrogations with suspected killers.

The law, the first of its kind nationally, was shepherded through the Illinois Statehouse two years ago by then state Sen. Barack Obama (D). Since then, the Illinois initiative has spurred lawmakers in Maine, New Mexico and the District of Columbia to pass similar mandates, efforts that build on comparable court-ordered regulations in Minnesota and Alaska.

This year, at least 15 states have considered related measures. Recently, lawmakers in Wisconsin pledged a similar bill in the wake of a disputed interrogation that contributed to the dismissal of a homicide case against a former police officer.

Backers tout the recordings — either audio or video — of police interrogations as a way to protect suspects and help investigators. They say the technique helps prevent abuse and false confessions while giving police a concrete piece of evidence in court. But Illinois officials sound a note of caution, warning that statehouses should consider the resources needed to make these laws work.

“The obstacles are not impossible and they should not stop us,” said Sheri Mecklenburg, general counsel to the superintendent of the Chicago police department. But recording police interrogations “isn’t just setting up a camera on a tripod,” she said.

It requires time, training and most of all, money. Mecklenburg estimated it will cost upwards of $4 million for Chicago alone to implement the system. “It’s a costly endeavor and hopefully it will be worth it,” she said. “But states have to realize they must appropriate funds for this.”Illinois is spending an additional $1.4 million for agencies outside of Chicago, state officials said.

While Illinois may be the first state to pass a law requiring electronic recordings of police interrogations, the idea first got its start years earlier in the courtrooms of Alaska and Minnesota .

In two separate decisions more than a decade apart, both court systems ruled that police officials must electronically record the interrogations of suspects held under police care — interviews also known as custodial interrogations.

These two decisions, Stephan v. State (Alaska, 1985) and State v. Scales (Minnesota , 1994), have served as a foundation for activist groups and legislators looking to mandate recordings.

“They had slightly different legal foundations, but they had the same effect,” said Bernie Horn, policy director of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a consortium that promotes liberal initiatives on the state level.

“We think it is a great reform because it protects people from police abuses, but it makes it more likely the police will catch the real criminal,” Horn said. “Because when the police get a false confession, they stop pursuing the real criminal.”

Tom Sullivan, a Chicago attorney who tracks interrogation laws, said recordings also benefit police because they’re like “the instant replay in football.” Police officers can verify questions, analyze the reactions of suspects and use the videotapes as training tools for the next generation of investigators.

“And what I have heard is unanimous support from the police. They just rhapsodize as to how good it is for law enforcement,” said Sullivan, who helped Illinois reform its death penalty policy a few years ago. By his own count, Sullivan said he knew of more than 320 jurisdictions in 43 states that have recording laws.

Some, like Illinois, concentrate on crimes such as manslaughter, murder and homicide. Others, such as New Mexico, focus on felonies. In Alaska, one state official said the rules require police to record questioning of suspects in custody on “everything from spitting on the sidewalk” on up.

And that means a giant headache for prosecutors.

“In our experience in Alaska, it’s been a nightmare,” said John Novak, the chief assistant district attorney in Anchorage. Recording interrogations “was going to be this magic bullet. That has been absolutely, positively, absolutely wrong.”

He said the law doesn’t make the truth more apparent in court, “it just changes the battlefield.” Attorneys still debate the tapes, sometimes arguing that they may have been doctored or that suspects were threatened or coerced off camera or cassette, he said.

Some state and local law enforcement agencies also have resisted the efforts, saying the recordings are unnecessary, expensive or both. There has been opposition in North Carolina and Nebraska.

Mike Bowen, lobbyist for the New Mexico State Police Association, told the Associated Press in February that a bill mandating recordings is “anti-law enforcement.” But after meeting with the bill’s sponsor, police organizations in New Mexico soon decided to go along with the changes. “We never did support the bill, though we agreed not to oppose it,” Bowen said in a phone interview. “I know it’s semantics, but there’s a big difference.”

In early April, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) signed the interrogation requirement into law. For Rep. Hector Balderas (D), who sponsored the legislation, it was a proud distinction. “Having the best evidence is in everyone’s interest,” Balderas said. “I think the average person sees it as common sense.”

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