In mid October, police in New York City announced that they had solved the mystery of the “Baby Hope” case:  at last, they had the killer of a four-year-old child whose body had been found in 1991, 22 years ago.  And the accused killer, Conrado Juarez, had confessed.

Days later, Juarez  recanted the key part of his confession.  He said that under intense pressure by police during a long interrogation, he had lied:  he had not killed the child.  He had only helped his sister dispose of the body at her request.  He said that he had lied about killing the little girl because  “after a while and after so much pressure [from police], I accepted it and said what they wanted,”

The accused may have been telling the truth when he said he killed the victim, or when he said that he actually didn’t.  I certainly don’t know the answer to that.  But one thing that would help to resolve the question would be a video and audio recording of the entire interrogation, from start to finish.  A judge or jury could then look at the entire thing and decide whether the accused was coerced or not.  And over a year ago, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly announced that, after a long pilot project, the NYPD would begin recording all interrogations in homicide, felony assault, and sexual assault cases.

But in this case, that was not done.  Instead, a recording of only the confession itself — a statement of guilt by Juarez at the end of the process — was made.  No recording was made of the questioning that lead up to it.  So we have no record of how police got to the point of getting the admission of guilt.  And that leaves the confession in dispute: the accused will argue that he was coerced, and the police will say they did nothing to coerce him.  But there will be no recording for a judge or jury to see.

Why did this happen?  According to the NYPD spokesman quoted in media reports, “only 28 detective squads — there are more than 76 across the city — have an interview room set up with recording equipment.”  The interrogation did not take place in one of those 28 squads.  Getting the equipment into all of those police facilities just takes time, and so far, the Department remains a long way from completely implementing Commissioner Kelly’s order.  (It is worth noting that the detectives in the Baby Hope case did not take the suspect to one of the buildings that already has the equipment  necessary to record.)

Or maybe it’s something else else.  According to Michael Palladino, the head of the NYPD’s detectives union, it’s better if interrogations don’t get recorded.  “There are certain tricks of the trade, I should say, that I think should not play out in front of the jury.”   But the cost of hiding these “tricks” is that we now have uncertainty in the Baby Hope case.  And, after so many cases of wrongful convictions including false confessions — they show up in 25 percent of all DNA-based exonerations — there is a loss of public confidence.

Here’s hoping that things move faster as the NYPD transitions to the recording of confessions.  Assuming that they have the real killer of Baby Hope, we all want the guy off the street.  We don’t need uncertainty introduced because there’s resistance to recording.

According to a new study by researchers at Florida International University, the use of standard interrogation techniques can prompt false confessions by juveniles; the risk is higher with juveniles than with adults.

Dr. LIndsay Malloy, the lead researcher on the study, says that “people need to understand that juvenile suspects are especially vulnerable in the interrogation room,” because “the ways in which we question youth can have potentially devastating consequences in some cases.”

The study by Dr. Malloy and her colleagues, “Interrogations, Confessions, and Guilty Pleas Among Serious Adolescent Offenders.” appears in the journal Law and Human Behavior.  It was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.  Here’s the abstract::

In the present study, we examined (a) the prevalence and characteristics of youths’ true and false admissions (confessions and guilty pleas), (b) youths’ interrogation experiences with police and lawyers, and (c) whether youths’ interrogation experiences serve as situational risk factors for true and false admissions. We interviewed 193 14- to 17-year-old males (M = 16.4) incarcerated for serious crimes. Over 1/3 of the sample (35.2%) claimed to have made a false admission to legal authorities (17.1% false confession; 18.1% false guilty plea), and 2/3 claimed to have made a true admission (28.5% true confession; 37.3% true guilty plea). The majority of youth said that they had experienced high-pressure interrogations (e.g., threats), especially with police officers. Youth who mentioned experiencing “police refusals” (e.g., of a break to rest) were more likely to report having made both true and false confessions to police, whereas only false confessions were associated with claims of long interrogations (>2 hr) and being questioned in the presence of a friend. The number of self-reported high-pressure lawyer tactics was associated with false, but not true, guilty pleas.

According to the researchers, the results call for “specialized trainings for those who interrogate youth, recording interrogations, placing limits on lengthy and manipulative techniques, and exploring alternative procedures for questioning juvenile suspects.”

You can see the full abstract here.  The study supplies yet another set of reasons to examine carefully our interrogation practices, to give up on interrogation for the purpose of getting a confession (instead, use the UK’s PEACE method), and to record all interrogation as a precondition to using them in court.

 

 

For those in the Chicago area, I’ll be speaking about my book “Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science” on Wednesday, October 16, at 5 p.m. at Gage Gallery, 18 S. Michigan Avenue.  The event is free and open to the public.  The event is sponsored by Roosevelt University’s Joseph Loundy Human Rights Project, and is part of their annual speaker series.  The link to the event is here.

The next public event for “Failed Evidence” will be in Pittsburgh on November 6, at noon at the Harvard Yale Princeton Club, 619 William Penn Place, The talk will be sponsored by the Allegheny County Bar Association and the Pitt Law Alumni Association.  More details to follow.

Of the 311 cases of wrongful convictions documented by The Innocence Project, about 25 percent include a false confession or false statement of guilt.  Yet false confessions remain the least understood type of justice system error.  Most people still ask, “why would anyone confess to a serious crime he did not commit, without physical abuse, a mental handicap or lack of sobriety?  I know I would never do that.”   Twenty years ago, I would have said the same thing.

Well, if you want to know how false confessions happen — how an innocent person could confess, even supplying details of how the crime was committed that only the perpetrator would know — and if you want to know how this could happen with a fine police detective operating according to the rules — you must listen to the latest episode of the radio show This American Life, called “Confessions.”  Here is the link to the show.  The story (one of several on the theme of confessions) runs approximately 28 minutes

A very brief summary, without giving anything away: A Washington, D.C. detective investigating a murder participated in the interrogation of the main suspect.  The woman denies any involvement at first, but after seventeen hours of questioning, she finally admits to participating in the crime, and supplies many incriminating details.  After the suspect is charged but before her case goes to trial, follow up investigation by police causes the case to fall apart, and a judge orders her released from jail after nine months.  The case is never solved.  Some years later, the same detective is assigned to a cold case unit, and he begins to look into the case again by watching a video tape of the interrogation.  What he sees reveals what went wrong, and it lays out an incredible lesson in exactly how the false confessions come to be.  And we learn that the video tape recording of the full interrogation was actually made just by chance; in the usual course of things, there would have been no recording, and none of this would have been discovered.

For anyone interested in police interrogation, for anyone still asking how an innocent person could ever confess, I cannot recommend this program more highly.  And it’s yet another endorsement of the idea that we must record interrogations if we are ever to solve this problem.

I’ve been posting (here and here) about the increasing interest and mounting evidence to support the use of body worn video (BWV) camera systems for police.   BWV pilot studies have been ordered in New York by the judge who found the New York  Police Department’s stop and frisk program unconstitutional, so the question for many is what these BWV systems do, and what they offer police and the public.

Reveal, a new radio program jointly sponsored by the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Public Radio Exchange (PRX), ran an interesting story on BWV in its pilot episode, which aired on September 28 in my area. “Policing on Camera” put the interest in BWV and its growing use in the context of how a real police officer makes use of BWV, and what he thinks of this tool after using it for some time.  Click on the brief video, and you’ll get his point of view — both in his own words and (literally) from the camera, as he makes an arrest.  Sergeant Michael Williamson of the BART police department makes it clear that BWV is easy to use and benefits him and his fellow officers in multiple ways; he won’t go out on patrol without it.  Thanks to Reveal, you don’t have to take my word for it; see what he says.

In my last post, I described the increasing interest in the use of body worn video (BWV) camera systems by police.  These systems have been in use for more than five years in the UK, where pilot studies (cited in my article in the Texas Tech Law Review) have largely approved of them; police officers in the U.K. who have used BWV have become its biggest supporters.

Now, we have the first rigorous study of the use of BWV in a U.S. police department.  In Rialto, California, Police Chief Tony Farrar became interested in the potential of BWV, and decided he wanted not just to have his officers try them, but to accurately measure their impact.  Rialto has a department of 60 sworn officers.  Farrar teamed with researcher Dr. Barak Ariel of Cambridge University, and the result is “Self-Awareness to Being Watched and Socially Desirable Behavior: A Field Experiment on the Use of Body-Worn Cameras on Police Use-of-Force.”  The bottom line of the study: on police shifts using in which officers used BWV, police use of force dropped 50 percent compared to shifts with no cameras; complaints against police were ten times higher on shifts without BWV compared to shifts using them.  According to a short description from the web site of the Police Foundation, where Chief Farrar is an Executive Fellow, the “extensive yearlong study” was a randomized controlled trial of “body-worn video cameras used in police patrol practices.”

Cameras were deployed to all patrol officers in the Rialto (CA) Police Department.  Every police patrol shift during the 12-month period was assigned to experimental or control conditions.  Wearing cameras was associated with dramatic reductions in use-of-force and complaints against officers.

It’s true of course that the Rialto Police Department is small compared to the NYPD, where the judge deciding the stop and frisk case has ordered that the police begin to use the cameras in some areas of New York City.  But that does not mean that BWV could not work in New York, and it certainly does not mean it is not worth trying the systems.  Perhaps more important, far more American police departments are closer in size to Rialto’s force than to New York.

The study is worth a good long look for anyone interested in the safety of police and the public, in improved police services, in protection of officers from bogus complaints, and in police accountability.  At the very least, it tells us that BWV should not be dismissed out of hand; it needs to be tried.

You’ll probably recall that the judge’s opinion in the recent stop and frisk case in New York mandates that the New York Police Department (NYPD) launch pilot programs testing body worn video (BWV) cameras in some NYPD precincts, including some of those with the largest numbers of stops and frisks.  (Here’s a link to that part of the opinion.) Mayor Michael Bloomberg decried this aspect of the judge’s order (along with the rest of it) — an odd position for a public official who has always been a very strong advocate of more cameras for public safety (see here and here).

In the weeks since, interest in BWV systems has increased greatly, even outside of the U.S.  For example,  the German television network, ARD (described to me by a person who has lived in Germany as “a German PBS, but about the size of CBS or NBC”), brought me to New York last week to interview me after finding my 2010 article on BWV, “Picture This: Body Worn Video Devices (“Head Cams”) as Tools for Ensuring Fourth Amendment Compliance by Police” in the Texas Tech Law Review.   The interview (conducted in English, since I don’t speak German) was quite thorough; I was then shown various publicly available videos of police/citizen encounters — some taken with BWV, others taken by members of the public — and asked for my reaction.  The correspondent and the producers explained that they had brought in law enforcement experts to interview, too.  The story has not yet aired, but I will post a link to it when it does (for those who speak German).   Stay tuned.

And there is more effort to get at the real evidence of how BWV systems perform: what they do for the police, for police accountability, and for the criminal justice system.  Two weeks ago, the Police Executives Research Forum (PERF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that describes itself as  “a police research organization and a provider of management services, technical assistance, and executive-level education to support law enforcement agencies,” hosted a conference for law enforcement on BWV to explore the issues it raises for police.  Here’s a link to one of the conference documents.

And then, something very useful.  There have been various pilot studies already conducted by police and the Home Office in the U.K.; my Texas Tech article contains links to this research.  But now, an American police department that has tried BWV has been the subject of a comprehensive, rigorous study.  It’s a very promising and positive look at the potential of BWV.  I’ll explain in my next post on the subject.