The Case for Videotaping Police Interrogations

Monday, October 27th, 2008

Last week in the L.A. Times, Washington, D.C. police Detective Jim Trainum wrote an op-ed explaining how he never believed someone could confess to a crime they didn’t commit—until a suspect he was interrogating did exactly that:

Even the suspect’s attorney later told me that she believed her client was guilty, based on the confession. Confident in our evidence and the confession, we charged her with first-degree murder.

Then we discovered that the suspect had an ironclad alibi. We subpoenaed sign-in/sign-out logs from the homeless shelter where she lived, and the records proved that she could not have committed the crime. The case was dismissed, but all of us still believed she was involved in the murder. After all, she had confessed.

Even though it wasn’t our standard operating procedure in the mid-1990s, when the crime occurred, we had videotaped the interrogation in its entirety. Reviewing the tapes years later, I saw that we had fallen into a classic trap. We ignored evidence that our suspect might not have been guilty, and during the interrogation we inadvertently fed her details of the crime that she repeated back to us in her confession.

If we hadn’t discovered and verified the suspect’s alibi — or if we hadn’t recorded the interrogation — she probably would have been convicted of first-degree murder and would be in prison today. The true perpetrator of the crime was never identified, partly because the investigation was derailed when we focused on an innocent person. 

If by-the-books interrogations like Trainum’s can elicit a false confession, it isn’t difficult to see how more coercive questioning could as well.  California’s legislature has twice passed a bill requiring the police to videotape interrogations.  Both bills were vetoed by Gov. Schwarzenegger after lobbying from the state’s police and prosecutors.  A third attempt to pass a bill died in committee this year.

Last year, I criticized Schwarzenegger for vetoing a bill that included the videotape requirement and two other sensible criminal justice reforms.

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21 Responses to “The Case for Videotaping Police Interrogations”

  1. #1 |  SJE | 

    Not only does videotaping protect the innocent suspects, it also protects cops from bogus charges of abuse. If the cops dont want videotaping, doesnt it strongly suggest that there is a lot more police abuse than bogus charges?

    To paraphrase an old police line of questioning: if you are innocent, then you have nothing to be afraid of.

  2. #2 |  Stephen | 

    I get an “Error 404 – Not Found” when I click on “Last year”.

    I don’t think the police or prison industry should be allowed to “lobby”.

  3. #3 |  SJE | 

    Radley: I thought a “by the books interrogation” was one where they used the yellow pages to prevent bruising when they punch you.

  4. #4 |  andyinsdca | 

    ALL interactions between the police and citizens need to videotaped, not just interrogations.

  5. #5 |  Chance | 

    Agree with SJE above.

    Here’s another thought: As phones, cameras, and electronics in general become more compact and integrated into practically everything, and computer memory becomes even cheaper than it already is, how will police stop suspects from videotaping their own interrogations? You can buy James Bond type cameras built into eyeglasses that only a careful inspection would reveal. Heck, people are already starting to implant memory storage devices in their own bodies, (usually for medical reasons) recording devices are no longer such a sci-fi type stretch.

  6. #6 |  Balloon Juice » Blog Archive » Quick Hits | 

    […] Why interrogations should be videotaped. In case you are unaware, one of the things that Obama helped to enact in Illinois was just this […]

  7. #7 |  Max | 

    You’ll remember that Barack Obama, as a state senator in Illinois, brought a bill to videotape interrogations to the senate floor and it passed overwhelmingly. Now there’s a guy with respect for civil liberties.

  8. #8 |  Frank N Stein | 

    These things help expose the lie that government is by and for “the people”. If in fact we were in charge, there would be no question that we could enact measures to ensure those who we pay to perform their government-monopolized duties are doing them properly. Basic competency and professionalism is an expectation and requirement for continued employment in most market-based situations. It’s the punchline to a joke when it concerns civil “servants” and the like (public school teachers, etc).

  9. #9 |  Les | 

    Now there’s a guy with respect for civil liberties.

    I might have believed that before his FISA vote.

  10. #10 |  libarbarian | 

    They’re all guilty of something.
    Everyone is guilty of something.

    /snark ….. or is it? *insert ominous music here*

  11. #11 |  jwh | 

    No, Max, I have no recollection of that…….but what about waterboarding……..Rumsfeld must be behind this somewhere……and W, too.

  12. #12 |  Mister DNA | 

    I agree with SJE. Not only does videotaping interrogations protect suspects, it protects cops, as well. But I seriously doubt many cops are concerned about protecting suspects.

    I remember watching something on Court TV about the 1991 Buddhist Temple Massacre in Arizona. Not only did an innocent person confess to that crime (after being fed details of the crime by detectives), the actual culprit had committed a murder in another county in which yet another person had confessed.

  13. #13 |  TBoneJones | 

    Of course police don’t want things video taped. It makes it impossible for them to lie. San Diego is on of the largest cities in the US. Federal grants would be available if Law Enforcement wanted patrol video systems in the vehicles. Even if they weren’t I don’t think local citizens would have any problem with the expenditure
    given the additional protection it would offer police against false claims etc. So, why don’t San Diego patrol vehicles have video systems? All I can imagine is it would make it impossible for cut and paste statements like “subject consented to search of their vehicle” or”subject made a suspicious movement” or “during a cursory weapons search” blah blah blah to be added to arrest reports.

  14. #14 |  Big Boy | 

    The new trend is to arrest anyone videotaping police activity (even if done in a public place and open to the view of dozens) for “disturbing the peace” of failing to obey an order to stop filming public servants conducting public business in a public place. Usually the case is dropped AFTER the cameras and cell phones are seized and the offending images “disappear” due to “spurious electrical currents” in the squad car.


    Because the police can then “claim” that a dozen unrelated people with no motive to lie ARE doing just that so long as there is no SURVIVING audio or video record of the incident.

    Secrecy always protects the liers.

  15. #15 |  Libertarian Mac | 

    Thats so true Big Boy. I once tried to video a female state trooper making a traffic stop. When she saw my cell phone pointed at her she screamed “hey what are you recording over there” and started moving in my direction. I, ofcourse cowared, closed the flip and moved on. Not so much afraid of an arrest but of losing my phone. Incidentally, I was only recording her because she was the best looking cop I had ever seen.

  16. #16 |  Lee | 

    They also use the tactic of asking if the recording has audio, and when you foolishly answer the cop YES, they charge you with federal wiretapping. It’s BS, but it’s what they do.

  17. #17 |  David McElroy | 

    For a fascinating and enlightening explanation of why false confessions happen (and why police believe them in spite of all evidence to the contrary), I recommend a book called, “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.” There’s only one chapter that deals specifically with police work, but the whole book is really worth reading and thinking about. It deals with the psychology behind how humans deal with cognitive dissonance in ways that make us truly believe things that absolutely never happened.

    When I was a newspaper reporter, I learned that eyewitness accounts of things were rarely accurate. Sometimes, they were reasonable guides to some of what happened, but different witnesses would have very different stories. Each person would be truly upset at how wrong the OTHER witnesses could be. It’s amazing how this basic human tendency affects our politics, romances, justice system and on and on and on.

  18. #18 |  Andrew | 

    There needs to be some sort of Miranda warning about talking to or cooperating with police. Most people don’t understand they they do not have to submit to an interrogation – oh sorry – “interview”. They also don’t know that any competent lawyer would tell you not to submit to an interrogation – damn, sorry “interview” – under any circumstances.

  19. #19 |  David Nieporent | 

    If we hadn’t discovered and verified the suspect’s alibi — or if we hadn’t recorded the interrogation — she probably would have been convicted of first-degree murder and would be in prison today. The true perpetrator of the crime was never identified, partly because the investigation was derailed when we focused on an innocent person.

    Kudos to the cop for actually paying attention to the alibi; too many LEOs/prosecutors will simply ignore contrary evidence once they “know” their target is guilty. They’ll insist that since their belief can’t be wrong, the evidence must be.

  20. #20 |  albatross | 

    I am curious. Is there some good argument for not videotaping police questioning/interrogations? Given the cost of videotaping equipment, I can’t seem to think of a good reason to argue against it at all. Am I missing something? Otherwise, it looks a whole lot like some bureaucrat arguing against having auditors allowed to look at his agency’s books–he’s trying to get away with something.

  21. #21 |  Corey | 

    For an excellent even handed account of interrogation, read David Simon’s (yeah, the guy who did the Wire) Homicide. Post Miranda, Police investigators have become skilled at using the various consent forms as props in a confidence game to persuade defendants to waive their 5th amendment privilege. Simon covers it as well as any of the social scientists (e.g,. Richard Leo) who study this stuff.