In more states, police have to get it on tape

Illinois is the latest to consider mandatory videotaping when police question suspects.

The announcement by Chicago police stunned the nation: Two boys, ages 7 and 8, had confessed to killing an 11-year-old girl in a dispute over a bicycle.

The news prompted an across-the-board examination of the juvenile-justice system, as well as of the cultural forces that could lead young children to kill.

But a short time later, another surprise came. DNA evidence linked an ex-con to the crime.

The boys were exonerated, but the police were not. They were suspected of coercing confessions out of the youngsters after prolonged interrogations.

This 1998 case and others like it have triggered a spate of proposals to require police to videotape interrogations and criminal confessions. Some states - including Alaska and Minnesota - already require it. But in Illinois, a bill now working its way through the statehouse represents the biggest test yet of whether such a measure can succeed in more-urban states.

To supporters, the measure is a way to bring more credibility to interrogations. But to police, it's yet another challenge to their integrity. The result, they worry, could be that untaped confessions will be tossed out of court.

Lights, action,...

The current Illinois bill would mandate videotaping of any interrogations or confessions that occur after an arrest for murder, rape, or juvenile felony charges. That makes it broader than some states' laws: Texas, for example, only requires video- or audiotaping of confessions.

But the bill's authors say it is fair. "This is a free society, and there's no reason for interrogations to take place in secret," says Monique Davis, an Illinois state legislator and sponsor of a videotaping bill. "We have had too many cases ... in which people claimed they were coerced into making a confession."

But police and prosecutors say the legislation places additional constraints on an already-difficult task. "We don't object to the concept of videotaping; it's the mandatory nature of the law we don't like," says Sean Smoot, chief legal counsel for the Police Benevolent and Protective Association of Illinois. "The state legislature is creating new civil rights."

Critics such as Mr. Smoot are concerned that a sidewalk, squad-car, or booking-room confession will be inadmissible in court and that felons will go free.

Not only that, videotaping is an expensive proposition, Smoot says. The Illinois legislation includes no way to pay for taping equipment, nor does it address training and servicing issues - all considerations for large precinct houses, which can have eight or more interrogation rooms.

In Minnesota, the requirement for video- or audiotaping interrogations is not law, but part of a 1994 ruling by the state Supreme Court. So far, prosecutors there have been pleasantly surprised.

"They were concerned it would have a chilling effect on confessions," says Amy Klobuchar, district attorney of Minnesota's Hennepin County. "But that has not been the case, and it's a protection against defense claims of police coercion."

Ms. Klobuchar says it's also valuable for jurors to see a suspect soon after arrest, when they can look quite different from the polished appearance they present in court. There are also unintended revelations, as in the case of the surreptitious videotaping of a Hennepin County suspect who claimed to be blind. When officers left the room, he flipped around a piece of paper to read it better.

A slap at police credibility?

Despite these advantages, law-enforcement officials argue that required taping is a challenge to their credibility.

"I was offended when the [state] Supreme Court ruling came down," says Ken Pilcher, a detective in suburban Minneapolis. "You say to yourself, 'Why us?' There's only one other state in the country that requires it. They're trying to fix a problem that does not seem to exist."

Although he still believes the Minnesota requirement is an annoyance, Detective Pilcher says it won't change what he does. "When I walk into the jail and turn the tape recorder on, I'm going to say the same things I'd say without it, and I think it's the same with the guy I'm talking to."

One aspect of videotaping that police are hesitant to discuss is the tactics they use to wear down a suspect's resistance and elicit a confession. Although legal, techniques such as overstating the amount of evidence police hold fall into a gray area.

According to prosecutors, though, jurors typically find such tricks of the trade acceptable - so long as they fall short of coercion.

"It has not hurt our cases to have juries observe how the police interrogate suspects," says Klobuchar. "It hasn't hurt our conviction rate in any way."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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