Legal Aid Chief Expresses Concern About The Details Of The NYPD Plan To Expand Video Taping of Suspects

Steven Banks, the Attorney-in-Chief of The Legal Aid Society, called the NYPD's plan to expand video taping of suspects in murder and sexual assault cases "a step forward," but he told the Wall Street Journal that we are concerned because there is no "concrete timetable to finally put in place an initiative that could have a significant impact on wrongful convictions."

In August, the WSJ reported that the NYPD had announced more than two years ago that it would begin a pilot program to video tape some interrogations in their entirety, but progress was slow and very little had been done to track results. At the time, Banks told the WSJ that "it's extremely distressing that apparently the pilot never really got off the ground."

The Wall Street Journal
Expand Interrogation Taping
Commissioner Kelly Reverses Course in Announcing Plans to Video Record Suspects in Cases of Murder and Sexual Assault
September 20, 2012
By Tamer El-Ghobashy

The New York City Police Department plans to video record full interrogations of all suspects in murder and sexual assault cases, Commissioner Raymond Kelly said Wednesday in announcing what would be a significant expansion of an anti-abuse initiative in the nation's largest police force.

The development was unexpected. The NYPD began taping interrogations last year but only minimally: a pilot program was limited to felony assault suspects in two precincts. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that the agency planned to widen the program to five stationhouses. Officials at the time said the practice needed to be studied further before it could include all 76 precincts or more crimes.

Mr. Kelly divulged the news in a private speech at the Carnegie Council in Manhattan and his spokesman didn't respond to requests for comment. A copy of the speech was later made public by the NYPD.

He said taping interrogations—not just the confessions they often produce—would "enhance public confidence in the criminal justice system by increasing transparency."

The announcement comes at a time when the NYPD is facing intensifying criticism over the civil-rights implications of some of its practices. Mr. Kelly has defended the department against allegations that stop-and-frisks and surveillance in Muslim communities have unfairly targeted minority communities.

Videotaping interrogations has become an increasingly common practice in law enforcement over the past two decades. It is praised as a shield against strong-arm police tactics that can lead to false confessions as well as claims by defendants that they were pressured into admitting guilt. Some investigators resist, however, fearing the tapes give criminals a window into interrogation techniques and that even sophisticated juries may balk at some of the more aggressive, if legal, police strategies.

Currently, 341 of the state's 509 police agencies record suspect interviews in some crimes, typically in at least murder and rape investigations, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services. Nationwide, 18 states and Washington, D.C., require the complete recording of interrogations for some crimes.

Expanding the program in New York City would cost $3 million, which Mr. Kelly said he has requested from the nonprofit Police Foundation. He didn't specify a timetable for the project or say if the grant had been secured. Representatives of the foundation couldn't be reached for comment.

The district attorneys of Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island all praised Mr. Kelly's announcement as a tool in preventing wrongful convictions and bolstering prosecutions of guilty suspects. Steven Banks, the attorney-in-chief at the Legal Aid Society, said the expansion of the practice would "certainly be a step forward" but expressed concern that "there isn't a concrete timetable to finally put in place an initiative that could have a significant impact on wrongful convictions."

A measure requiring videotaped confessions in some cases in New York state has passed the Assembly but not the Senate. Mr. Kelly said the NYPD wasn't waiting for a legal mandate.

In 2010, Mr. Kelly announced that his agency would adopt video-recording on a trial basis in the 48th Precinct in the Bronx and the 67th Precinct in Brooklyn on all felony assault cases. The practice began in 2011.

In August, after a dozen requests by the Journal, the NYPD and court officials were unable to provide data on the total number of fully recorded interrogations, the dispositions of those cases or a comparison of conviction rates—offering little insight into the effectiveness of the initiative.

Mr. Kelly said Wednesday about 300 interrogations have been recorded in the pilot phase. "We've secured a number of early pleas after turning over a video confession to the defendants' lawyers," he said. "Based on this experience, we're ready to move forward with this practice in all of our commands."

It wasn't clear if the expansion would still include felony assaults. NYPD spokesman Paul Browne didn't respond to requests for more information.

No cases have gone to trial in Brooklyn or the Bronx in which an interrogation was fully recorded in the pilot program. A spokesman for the Bronx district attorney's office, Steven Reed, said defendants have pleaded guilty in 10 of 72 cases where a recording exists. The Brooklyn district attorney's office couldn't provide similar data Wednesday.

Legal experts said the impact of videotaped interrogations on police or jury behavior is still difficult to gauge: While they may expedite plea negotiations, they don't necessarily prevent more unsavory investigative practices from occurring off camera. "It's not a solution to the problem, it's a step in the right direction," said Scott Greenfield, a veteran New York criminal defense attorney.