Videotaping Interrogations and Confessions

By Geller, William A. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, January 1994 | Go to article overview

Videotaping Interrogations and Confessions


Geller, William A., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


Every aspect of American society feels the impact of video technology. No longer just for documenting baby's first steps, video cameras now play an increasingly important role in the criminal justice system. Law enforcement's use of audio-video technology ranges from providing department store surveillance to documenting police field stops of suspects and their interrogations in station house interview rooms.

In March 1993, the National Institute of Justice published the results of a preliminary study on the use of video technology in criminal interrogations.(1) The study provides a useful guide for departments in deciding whether to use videotaping. It identifies questions to consider when developing a videotaping policy, procedural issues to resolve, and the perceived effects of videotaped interrogations on case preparation and court proceedings. The Study

In the three-part study, Geller first reviewed the relevant literature to define the issues involved in videotaping confessions and interrogations. Then, he surveyed police and sheriffs' departments nationwide to identify those that do and do not videotape, followed by a phone survey on practices employed and practitioners' perceptions of the efficiency of such videotaping. Finally, Geller conducted indepth interviews of criminal justice practitioners (including police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges) in 11 cities and counties where confessions and interrogations were videotaped to determine their perceptions about the practice and its effects.

The Results

Geller's exploration of videotaping practices employed by police across the country brought out a number of important issues. For example, each police department had to decide when to tape interrogations, whether tapes should be made overtly or covertly, how the use of tapes affected prosecutors' and defense attorneys' case preparation and court proceedings, and how the taping influenced the interviewers' choice of interrogation tactics.

Overview

The survey revealed that in 1990, approximately one-third of law enforcement agencies serving populations of 50,000 or more were videotaping at least some interrogations; that number was expected to swell to more than 60 percent of such departments by 1993. Larger departments used video technology more than smaller ones, perhaps because of budget constraints or caseload considerations. Most of the departments surveyed in 1990 had been using video technology for interrogations for at least 3 years, and 41 percent had done so for at least 5 years. Generally, departments had moved gradually from written reports to audiotapes and then to video documentation.

Types of Cases

Videotaping suspects' statements and interrogations is most prevalent in felony cases--the more severe the felony, the more likely videotaping will be used. Homicide suspects' statements were taped by 83 percent of the surveyed agencies that used videotaping. The majority of the videotaping departments also made some use of video documentation of interrogations in the other types of violent crime cases--rape, aggravated battery or assault, and armed robbery--as well as in drunk driving cases.

Reasons for Taping

Interrogations and confessions were taped for a variety of reasons. Many surveyed agencies sought to refute defense attorneys' criticisms of police interrogation techniques and challenges to the completeness and accuracy of written confessions or audiotaped statements. Others cited a desire to show clearly that suspects confessed voluntarily. Videotaped statements also served to remind detectives of important details when testifying in court.

At the same time, strong arguments were made against videotaping. These arguments were advanced primarily by practitioners who had never used videotaping and had no firsthand knowledge of its costs and benefits. Those opposed to such video recordings believed that suspects are more afraid to talk freely in front of a camera, knowing that every detail could be seen and heard in court. …

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