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Law enforcement agencies get money to record interrogations

November 08, 2009|By BRIDGET DiCOSMO

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Some local law enforcement agencies say they try to make audio recordings of their interrogations with suspects accused of serious crimes when possible, even though they currently are not required to do so.

Now, grants from the Maryland Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention will fund the purchase of digital audiovisual recording equipment for six law enforcement agencies in the state, including the Washington County Sheriff's Department, the Hagerstown Police Department and Maryland State Police.

This equipment will be used to set up special rooms where investigators can create digital audio and video recordings of their interactions with suspects, said Crime Control and Prevention Director Kristen Mahoney.

Establishing the technological capabilities for law enforcement agencies to record these types of interviews has been a priority of the Maryland General Assembly since it adopted a public policy in 2008 that states police should make such recordings in connection with serious crimes whenever possible, Mahoney said.

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"It's to their benefit if they can get a confession on video -- a picture is worth a thousand words," Mahoney said.

Six counties in Maryland already have the audiovisual recording equipment in place in their interview rooms.

The standard practice of most police departments in Maryland involves making some type of recording of interviews they conduct with suspects in serious criminal cases, but in the past, it has been left up to their discretion whether to do so, Mahoney said.

The criminal justice system remains somewhat split on the issue of recording such interviews, Mahoney said.

"Defense attorneys always want to see every contact with law enforcement recorded, but police often have good reasons for not doing so," Mahoney said.

For example, a suspect might choose to make an admission of guilt to an officer somewhere other than the police department, and recording equipment might not be available at the time, Mahoney said.

Washington County Deputy State's Attorney Steven Kessell said that although his office encourages police to record all interviews when it is "appropriate and convenient to do so," it opposes the idea of making the practice mandatory.

"Sometimes it's not practical," Kessell said.

The Washington County Sheriff's Department does make audio recordings of suspect interviews in certain cases, but will update its audiovisual equipment with the help of the Crime Control and Prevention grant, said Lt. Mark Knight.

Because there is no legislative requirement to record, Knight said that the deputy handling a case decides whether to use an audio recorder to document an interview with a suspect.

Maryland is one of 12 states with a law or policy involving suspect interview recording, according to an extensive study on the subject by Northwestern University School of Law professor Thomas P. Sullivan.

Maryland's public policy doesn't make the recordings mandatory, but dictates that agencies should make "reasonable efforts" to record the proceedings when interviewing suspects believed to have committed crimes such as murder, rape, and first- or second-degree sexual offenses.

While the policy legislation and grants from Crime Control and Prevention represent considerable progress, the practice of recording suspect interviews in their entirety should be mandatory, said Cindy Boershma, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

The cost of not recording police interviews with suspects can be high, in some cases leading to cases of "false confessions," those in which an innocent person may be coerced into admitting to a crime they didn't commit, Boershma said.

The Hagerstown Police Department has used audio recorders to document interviews of those suspected in serious felony cases for years, but now will be able to use digital video equipment as well, Sgt. Paul Kifer said.

Because Maryland law requires that both parties whose voices are being recorded give consent, a suspect must agree to have the interview recorded with audio equipment.

In instances where the suspect refuses to be recorded, police must revert to taking notes to document the interaction.

Kifer said because recording interviews provides a clear and indisputable record of what went on during the interrogation, doing so can prevent issues from arising in court later.

"That way, there's no way someone can say we said something or didn't say something. It's their words, it isn't our words," Kifer said.

Recording interviews also gives officers an accurate way of referencing specific points in a conversation after an interview ends, as well as a means of reviewing a suspect's responses during the questioning, said Lt. Shawn Martyak, commander of the criminal investigations division at the Frederick (Md.) Police Department.

"We can lock people into their statements and they can't recant that statement later," Martyak said.

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