At the roll out event for Failed Evidence at John Jay College in New York on Thursday, Sept. 20, I spoke about the book, and a star-studded faculty panel, moderated by former U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter, gave the audience astute and insightful comments. The event took place just after NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly announced an expansion of the Department’s very small pilot program of recording interrogations, so police will record all interrogations in cases of murder or sexual offenses, in every precinct. This change in NYPD policy came up in my presentation, and in the panel’s comments. I favor recording of interrogations and said so, but panel member Eugene O’Donnell, a former NYPD officer who now teaches at John Jay, voiced reservations. ( The recording of the event is not yet available, so I am working from memory; if I get this wrong, I hope that Professor O’Donnell or someone else who was there will correct me.) Professor O’Donnell’s main concern with recording seemed to be that detectives performing interrogations would curtail their questioning, or even not attempt much questioning, if they knew they were being recorded. I heard this same concern raised the next day, in an email I got from another attendee. This gentleman, who like Professor O’Donnell is also a former NYPD officer, said that he had raised the issue of recording interrogations with a friend who is an active NYPD detective, and that the friend said the same thing Professor O’Donnell had: that he would do fewer interviews if he was going to be recorded.
I disagree; the experience of police departments that have recorded for years (beginning with Alaska in 1985 and Minnesota in 1984) doesn’t support this fear. “The Case for Recording Police Interrogations,” published in 2008 by Thomas P. Sullivan and colleagues, carefully works through all of the objections police have raised to recording. According to Sullivan, none of them hold water, but more interestingly, the idea that detectives faced with a recording requirement will somehow hold back or stop interrogating suspects does not even come up when talking to police who record. On the contrary, the article contains a long list of the benefits that police get from recording interrogations: a complete record; protection against bogus charges of misconduct or illegalities like failure to administer Miranda warnings; fewer motions to suppress and more guilty pleas, to name just a few. I have had the privilege of meeting a lot of police officers and detectives, and it is my strong impression that a recording requirement will not deter them from doing their jobs.