- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2001

Embarrassed by the disintegration of the case against two boys age 7 and 8 accused of murdering an 11-year-old girl, the Chicago Police Department says it may start requiring officers to videotape interviews with children under 12. This would be a change on the order of putting anti-lock brakes on a stagecoach. Why does the department want to stop at kids? Why does it continue to resist an innovation whose value has been proven beyond any doubt?

The Chicago police treat videotaping as if it were some bizarre idea dreamed up yesterday by naive intellectuals. In fact, it has been in use in some places for nearly two decades and has been enthusiastically endorsed by law enforcement officials nationwide. New York, Philadelphia, Denver, St. Louis, Kansas City and dozens of other municipalities rely on it routinely. They have discovered that it doesn't impede police and prosecutors but helps them. The burden of proof is now on the opponents of videotaping, not the advocates.

Five years ago, after fighting charges that one murder suspect was tortured into confessing, the Chicago Police Board recommended that the department begin videotaping confessions in major cases. The suggestion was ignored.

If you want to know why, though, you're out of luck. Spokesman Patrick Camden cannot be bothered to justify the established policy. “We have a variety of reasons I'm not going to get into,” he says. At other times, he has insisted the subject needs “more research.”

Well, tobacco company executives say the same thing about the alleged link between smoking and cancer, and a few people still doubt that the Earth is round. But the evidence on videotaping has convinced plenty of other departments and should persuade anyone whose mind is not sealed shut.

In practice, the benefits are real and important. A 1992 report by the U.S. Department of Justice found that at least one out of every three large police departments used videotaping. Of those surveyed, 80 percent said the practice made it easier to get guilty pleas — and none said it made things harder.

Tapes also help convict suspects rash enough to go to trial after making damning admissions. Juries may be skeptical about a written confession, but they find it hard to dismiss the sight of a defendant calmly recounting his crime on a TV monitor.

Once upon a time, the fear was that criminals would balk at confessing in front of a video camera. That concern has been put to rest. “It doesn't affect what they say,” says Sgt. Jon Priest of the Denver Police Department's homicide division, which videotapes interviews and interrogations as well as confessions.

Police officers may have an understandable reluctance to open themselves to the scrutiny that videotaping can bring. But they soon learn that the camcorder is their best friend. A felon whose questioning has been captured on tape is deprived of a favorite defense tactic — accusing the police of violating his rights through abuse or trickery. Has videotaping reduced the number of such charges against cops? “Yes,” says Priest. Do police officers like that? “They love it.”

In cities that refuse to videotape, conscientious cops can be put on trial, in effect, by lawyers claiming mistreatment of their clients. Philadelphia adopted videotaping after two men who had confessed to killing a 26-year-old Illinois woman were acquitted thanks to allegations that their statements had been coerced. That rarely happens when the confessions have been taped.

Prosecutors who are acquainted with videotaping are not shy in extolling its virtues. “It's a wonderful tool,” says Lamar Sims, the chief deputy district attorney in Denver. “It makes for a very solid prosecution.” You might think that jurors new to the gritty reality of police work might blanch when they see it in unfiltered form. Sims, however, says he has never had a defendant acquitted because a jury was squeamish about how the police behaved on tape.

But videotaping is not a boon only to law enforcement. It also helps people accused of crimes. Though most cops follow the rules, a few don't. A police officer who knows he is being taped will be far less inclined to resort to threats, deceit or physical violence against a suspect in custody. And if he does, he can expect to be exposed and punished — and to see the accused go free.

All videotaping can do is protect the innocent and thwart the guilty, while deterring lies by cops as well as criminals. Isn't that enough?

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