There is more talk than ever about how to safegaurd the criminal justice system against false confessions. One reform that can help avoid these catastrophic errors is for police to record in-custody confessions. With a recording of the entire interrogation (not just the part where the subject admits his or her involvement), the worst abuses are curbed, the jury or judge can see and hear exactly what happened, and there are many fewer legal issues about whether Miranda warnings were properly given. The results, according to the police departments that have been required under state law to do this for years (most notably, Minnesota since 1994 and Alaska even earlier) have been almost uniformly positive.
Thus I was encouraged by a news item I saw from Pennsylvania, my home state, in which a county prosecutor seemed to take a forward-looking stance: she was launching a pilot program in which county detectives will record interrogations of murder suspects:
“Police and prosecutors need to be on the front lines of making sure we are doing things the right way … It’s up to us to do our jobs with integrity and maintain integrity in our investigations,” Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said…[S]he said she was drawn to the issue after serving as a member of the Joint State Government Commission’s advisory committee on wrongful convictions. The committee issued a report in the fall of 2011.
Applause for Ms. Fermin…except for one thing. She is against any requirement that recording be mandatory. Rather, police and prosecutors should get to decide for themselves whether they want to do this.
“When you’re working in law enforcement and you’re working on the street … you learn there are any number of ways to do” things, Ms. Ferman said. “Why would you try to hamstring police? The goal should be: do it right, do it properly, do it with integrity and do it fairly.”
I can’t agree. First, police and prosecutors in Pennsylvania have the power, right now, to decide to make recording of interrogations standard practice. Despite the fact that it is universally applauded by law enforcement in every jurisdiction in which it is required — see the many comments here and in Failed Evidence from police and prosecutors experienced with recording — most agencies still don’t do it. Second, recording really does make for better law enforcement and better outcomes and fewer false confessions. So there comes a time when those resisting should not get to continue to resist, just because they think they know better.
If a doctor wanted to keep using leeches because he thought he knew better, would we let that continue?