Governor Schwarzenegger last week vetoed SB 511, a bill that would have required videotaped documentary of interrogations of suspects of violent crimes. In his open letter to the California State Senate, the Governor justified his veto by reasoning that “Police interrogations are dynamic processes that require investigators to use acumen, skill and expertise to determine which methods of interrogation are best for the situation. This bill would place unnecessary restrictions on police investigators.”
It is unfortunate that Governor Schwarzenegger fails to elaborate with specific examples of how, exactly, videotaped interrogations would impede police investigators. In fact, just the opposite appears to be true; prosecutors and law enforcement officers in all of the states which currently require videotaped confessions have widely praised the practice.
Simply requiring videotaped interrogatories, however, may not be enough. Several steps are important to maintain an unbiased depiction of the event. One is recording the whole process, rather than particular parts. Kevin Fox’s 2004 videotaped confession to the murder of his 3-year-old daughter is 20 minutes long, but the tape excludes the 14 hours of interrogation that proceeded the confession. Fox was released in 2005 after DNA evidence cleared him and the charges were dropped. Another essential step is framing both the interrogator and the suspect in the shot to avoid camera angle bias. Camera angle bias is when the shot of the video is framed in such a way as to exclude certain details and focus attention on other details in order to make a confession appear voluntary.
The strongest arguments proposed by opponents of videotaped interrogations seem to be the cost of the technology. But even to avoid one false conviction, this cost seems justified. Furthermore, videotaped interrogations can help protect officers using legitimate techniques from accusations that confessions were coerced. Videotaping interrogations, therefore, can help protect everyone by providing a concrete record of what happened during the event. Keeping in mind the caveats of recording the interrogation in its entirety and taking steps to avoid camera angle bias, videotaping interrogations may be the single simplest step toward reducing coerced confessions and false convictions.