When law enforcement agents head into an interrogation room, they are tasked with getting to the truth of an investigation. They must do so while protecting themselves and the rights of the individuals they are questioning.
Since the early 1900s, federal agencies were banned from using audio records of suspect statements without special approval. More than a century later, however, the U.S. Department of Justice changed that policy, mandating that federal agencies record video of all interrogations of suspects in custody, whenever possible.
Policy shift encourages electronic recording
Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new policy for agencies with individuals in federal custody—including the FBI, DEA, ATF and U.S. Marshals Service—that presumes any statements made between arrest and initial appearance will be electronically recorded. Documentation by default provides assurances that detained individuals are afforded their constitutionally-protected rights and that federal law enforcement officials have clear and indisputable records of important statements and confessions.
There are exceptions. Under some circumstances, video or even audio recording is not practical, and the agency can forgo the use of equipment. An individual may also request not to be videotaped. Extenuating circumstances that preempt the new policy will be handled on a case-by-case basis.
“Creating an electronic record will ensure that we have an objective account of key investigations and people who are held in federal custody,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a video statement.
The effects of the policy change reach beyond federal agencies. Some state and city police have started using electronic recordings to keep track of interrogations and confessions. In a memo, deputy attorney general James M. Cole said he expects the policy shift will encourage agents and prosecutors to consider electronic recording for other circumstances, such as questioning witnesses.
As this becomes a widespread practice, more agencies will need to lean on services such as cloud computing to store a surging number of digital documents. Departments that do not quickly adapt are likely to encounter problems with the application, sharing and storage of the technology, which will prevent them from reaping many of its benefits.
Agents and suspects are both helped by video
“Recording interrogations protects the accused against police misconduct, protects law enforcement from false allegations, and protects public safety by ensuring a verbatim record of the interrogation process and any statements,” Jerry J. Cox, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told NPR.
The inclusion of video can benefit citizens by shielding people in compromised mental states from coercive police techniques. By integrating video devices in the interrogation room, officials can revisit objective recordings of what transpired to avoid costly mistakes in court. In 2013, 87 people falsely convicted of crimes were exonerated—a record-breaking figure achieved largely through law enforcement’s efforts to review certain convictions.
“Police and prosecutors have become more attentive and concerned about the danger of false conviction,” Samuel Gross, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, told CBS News. “We are working harder to identify the mistakes we made years ago, and we are catching more of them.”
The use of electronic recordings protects law enforcement from false accusations. According to research from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, agents were exonerated 93 percent of the time when video evidence was available to defend an officer against a complaint. Video and audio recordings help wrap up cases quickly, sparing agency resources from extended downtime or avoiding litigation altogether. More than half of complaints against police officers were dropped once the accuser was made aware of the recording, allowing departments to direct their officers’ time toward other investigations.
Electronic recordings can also be used proactively. The use of digital recordings may help lessen physical risks to officers and citizens alike. The IACP In-Car Camera Project found that experienced officers who had access to cameras frequently used them to de-escalate situations. Nearly half of the officers participating in the study reported that citizens became less aggressive upon learning they were being recorded.
The Department of Justice’s endorsement of legally-defensible records allows departments to strengthen their mission of public safety. Quickly closing the book on both internal and external investigations saves money and manpower, which can then be allocated to more pressing areas. If cameras proactively prevent misconduct and litigation, electronic recording could also result in fewer complaints against an agency, thereby improving the relationship between a department and the community it serves.
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