ANNAPOLIS — Press accounts of coerced confessions and unscrupulous interrogation tactics by Maryland police officers have prompted Delegate Dana Lee Dembrow, D-Montgomery, to sponsor a bill to force officers to videotape all confessions of violent crimes.
“Whenever police credibility is damaged, it is extremely detrimental to the criminal justice system,” Dembrow said. “It is important that the public have the utmost confidence in the integrity of the police.”
Articles in The Washington Post last year recounted incidents of four false police-coerced confessions stemming from harsh questioning tactics used by the Prince George’s County Police Department.
The Post reported that officers slammed one accused man against a wall, threatened his life and refused to let him sleep until he confessed.
In other cases, officers refused to let suspects contact lawyers.
“Police may tend to be more consistently professional when they know they are being filmed,” Dembrow said. People were “brow-beaten psychologically.”
The legislation applies only to violent crime and would require that police record the entire interrogation. An intentional failure to videotape the confession would render it inadmissible at trial.
Accidental failure to produce a videotape, say through machinery failure, would permit the court to allow the confession.
Prince George’s County Police are already placing video cameras in interrogation rooms and will begin recording some questioning sessions by the end of March. The department plans to develop its own guidelines for recording the interrogations.
The cameras could help the county deal with the problem of coerced confessions documented in the articles, said Delegate Rushern L. Baker III, D- Prince George’s, candidate for county executive.
“I think it’s necessary,” he said.
Police officers elsewhere said a mandate could hamper police investigations by placing statewide guidelines on all jurisdictions.
Montgomery County Police officers use written, taped and video-recorded confessions based on the officer’s comfort with the technology, said Montgomery County Public Information Officer Bill O’Toole.
“In the course of a business day a police department our size (does) a lot of interrogations,” O’Toole said. “That would mean we couldn’t interrogate someone at a shopping mall. (There would be) investigative technique issues.”
The legislation will be discussed Feb. 12 at the House Judiciary Committee.
Finding funding for the program in this tough budget year could be a problem. The complete cost of the equipment has not yet been calculated. However, Dembrow said money exists for the program in the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention.
To bring more attention to the issue, Dembrow plans to invite Marylanders who were forced to confess to crimes they did not commit to testify before the Judiciary Committee.
“It’s hard for me to imagine how a person would sign a confession when they did not do it,” said Dembrow, who is an attorney. “I am surprised there is not more public outcry.”
The bill would also require police to record their queries of child sex abuse victims to prevent “overly ambitious investigators” from planting seeds and falsely implicating someone. “Eventually the child tells them what they think they want to hear,” Dembrow said. He compared the use of video cameras to other technology used in criminal investigations, such as genetic testing, which provides officers with a greater certainty of guilt.
Videotaping, he said, “helps to make sure that the innocent are not wrongfully accused and helps evidence against the guilty.”
– 30 – CNS 2-1-02