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Embracing Technology Can Reduce False Convictions

At least 20 states already require videotaping custodial interrogations. But some states, including New York, still lag behind. This must change.

Crossposted on Huffington Post

On July 11th, the U.S. Department of Justice will institute a new policy establishing “a presumption” that U.S. attorneys and federal agents will electronically record statements made by individuals in their custody. This is a smart step. Requiring recorded interrogation is now the norm, rather than the exception across much of the U.S.: at least 20 states and the District of Columbia already require videotaping custodial interrogations. But some states, including New York, still lag behind. This must change.

Scientific and technological advances in the last two decades have revolutionized society, and the law enforcement and criminal justice arenas are no exceptions. The police rely more on sophisticated surveillance technology in an era of increased anti-narcotics and counterterrorism efforts; GPS technology allows the rapid dispatch of police closest to an emergency; and advances in forensic science, particularly DNA evidence, have resulted in more accurate convictions and exonerations.

New York has been at the forefront of implementing many of these advances. So it may come as a surprise that the state has failed to embrace videotaping of interrogations – now a decades-old technology. The New York State legislature has consistently failed to pass legislation mandating videotaping of interrogations, even though bills have been introduced for over a decade.

New York State should require recording of interrogations for two very simple reasons. First, it makes policing more accurate. It’s a valuable tool to substantiate correct convictions, and minimize wrongful convictions. This can help enhance communities’ faith in police and the criminal justice process. Indeed, twenty years’ worth of social science research on false confessions indicates that having recorded interrogations would dramatically increase the ability of prosecutors, investigators, jurors and judges to assess the validity of a confession.

Second, it is necessary because research indicates that false confessions are quite common; nationwide, 28% of the DNA exonerations involved a false confession or admission, and in New York State, 44 percent of recent DNA exonerations involved a false confession or a false admission.

Video-recorded interrogations can help avert catastrophes of justice like the infamous Central Park Five case, which resulted in false confessions for the five defendants, who were later exonerated. Even though the defendants confessed on camera, the interrogations were not videotaped. This was crucial because they had been subject to up to 30 hours of interrogation and received decade-long sentences. Another man’s confession and DNA evidence later led to their sentences being vacated, but not until their lives had been permanently altered.

Many of New York State’s top officials agree. A 2012 task force headed by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman of the New York Court of Appeals recommended that custodial interrogations of suspects involved in serious crimes should be recorded. And, just last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo, in his annual State of the State address, called on Albany lawmakers to pass legislation to videotape interrogations in an effort to prevent wrongful convictions and strengthen the criminal justice system.

Most importantly, those on the front lines – the police – recognize the significant value in recording interrogations. That’s why even in the absence of a state requirement, former New York City Police Department Commissioner Raymond Kelly implemented a policy requiring the country’s largest, most sophisticated and most technologically-advanced police force to record interrogations in murder, assault and sexual assault cases. Kelly’s reform, along with then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s pledge to support it with public money was a big step forward.

But a year after Kelly pledged the department would begin videotaping interrogations from start to finish in murder and sex crimes, two-thirds of detective squads in the city had not yet begun recording interrogations of any kind. According to the police department’s former chief spokesman, John J. McCarthy, as of October 2013, only 28 detective squads of the more than 76 across Manhattan had an interview room set up with recording equipment.

Recording of interrogations is effective, necessary, and fiscally responsible – it can save millions the state currently pays out in civil lawsuits. It is required by many other states and endorsed by the most senior officials in New York State. Mandating recording for all crimes would go a long way toward improving justice in New York. Current New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and New York City Police Department Commissioner William Bratton should build on their predecessors’ efforts. But what’s really needed to realize these benefits is a little courage from legislators in Albany.

(Photo: MorgueFile/JPPI)