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Baltimore police moving toward videotaped interrogations

The Baltimore Police Department is taking steps to begin videotaping interrogations in its most serious criminal investigations — a long-resisted move that is being adopted by an increasing number of Maryland law-enforcement agencies.

The department, the eighth-largest in the country, recently began using video as part of a series of reforms of its sex-offense unit. Now officials are exploring equipment options and the policy impact of videotaping homicide and shooting interrogations. Detectives are being trained on subtleties such as where to stand and how their demeanor will play to a jury.

"I'm committed to doing this, and I have a bunch of really smart guys working on getting this done," said police CommissionerFrederick H. Bealefeld III, who has studied videotaping since he was chief of detectives. "But it's not as simple as going to Radio Shack and bolting a camera into the wall."

Since 2008, when the General Assembly endorsed videotaped interrogations as a preferred policy in Maryland — but did not require them — the number of agencies with audio and visual recording has increased from 26 to 42, including all of the Baltimore region's largest departments. An additional 17 agencies have plans to purchase new equipment in the next two years.

"The technology has changed tremendously," said Kristen Mahoney, director of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, which has provided $152,000 in grants for video upgrades. "A few years ago, we were looking at costs of [$8 million to $9 million] to hard-wire an interrogation room."

While the public is accustomed to watching police interviews on reality shows such as "The First 48," the practice wasn't widespread until recently. And city officials say there are major logistical concerns about reliably archiving what could be thousands of interviews a year.

Hundreds of jurisdictions across the country now videotape interrogations, and it is required by law in several states and the District of Columbia. The shift has been spurred by increasing affordability, as well as by questions of coercion and false confessions as DNA testing has led to the release of scores of inmates.

In Harford County, the sheriff's department says it has long recorded interviews in major cases and recently got funding to add interrogation rooms to neighborhood precincts.

"It's pretty much a standard for progressive law-enforcement agencies," Sheriff L. Jesse Bane said. "People are finding out that the things Hollywood portrays really don't take place."

Bladensburg police Chief Charles Owens sees video as "just another step in logging evidence." His officers use it for all suspect interrogations, for misdemeanors and felonies, and said it turns many cases into a "slam dunk."

In a recent case, a suspect accused of burglarizing several homes and sexually assaulting a woman gave a confession that was recorded. At trial, he tried to claim his confession had been coerced, but "the audio and video clearly showed that it was voluntary," Owens said.

Currently, detectives in Baltimore interview a suspect and take notes. When a suspect is ready to give a statement — or, critics say, when a detective is ready for them to give a statement — detectives begin audio recording. That has led to accusations over the years that statements are crafted during untaped interrogation sessions.

At the recent trial of a man charged with killing a teenage boy and stuffing his body in a closet, defense attorney Bridget Shepherd told jurors that witnesses and suspects were tormented, comparing it to "Guantanamo Bay" and saying her client's taped confession didn't give the full story.

"How do these statements come about?" Shepherd asked the jury. "I suggest that when they began the interrogation, he told the truth. … But it wasn't the statement police wanted — it didn't match the theory they had in their mind."

Elizabeth Julian, who oversees the Baltimore public defender's office, said her attorneys are "always suspicious about what goes on" during interrogations and support a move toward videotaped recordings.

"If everybody is in the pursuit of justice, it will be a better window into the process for everyone," Julian said.

The move also has the support of the Baltimore state's attorney's office. Deputy State's Attorney Elizabeth Embry said prosecutors are talking with police about crafting policies on recording. She was involved in efforts to implement video in interviews with victims of sex offenses, part of a series of reforms aimed at improving investigations.

Baltimore County has long taped interviews, providing, for example, a dramatic account of Cockeysville teenager Nicholas Browning as he shifted from lying about killing his parents and younger siblings to explaining how he methodically carried out the crime.

A recorded interview was also used by Baltimore County prosecutors to seek the death penalty in a recent murder-for-hire case, though the jury ultimately rejected that punishment. The state's capital punishment law now requires DNA or other biological evidence, or a video recording that "conclusively" links the defendant to the killing.

Interrogations are also taped in Montgomery County, where video frequently is shown at trial, as in the case of a woman convicted of killing a co-worker at a Bethesda fitness store.

But Baltimore is not alone in being slow to adapt. New York City only last year began a pilot program to record felony assault interrogations in two precincts. The move met with opposition from the police union, which said juries would disapprove of some tactics, even though they are legal, and be sympathetic toward suspects.

Robert F. Cherry, a former homicide detective and president of the Baltimore police union, supports the video recording program.

"I know from being a homicide detective on the witness stand, a lot of times when I finished [testifying], I could almost feel that I wish I had something to show the jury to show that what the defense attorney said was not true," Cherry said. "We had only the audio tape that showed the final 10 minutes of the interrogation, and I often wished we had the previous two or three hours to show."

Cherry worries that suspects will shut down if detectives have to gain consent for a recording. But the state law passed in 2008 exempted such recordings from Maryland's strict wiretapping statutes, meaning police do not need consent to film interviews.

Since the governor's office made additional funding available, at least nine law enforcement agencies have obtained money to beef up interrogation rooms and add audio/visual capabilities, receiving between $9,600 and $60,000. They include individual state police barracks, the police departments in Riverdale and Hagerstown, and the sheriff's offices in Cecil and Washington counties.

It's a major change from a decade ago, when skeptical police officials feared that taped interrogations would reveal investigative tactics such as deceptive techniques, and could create a negative perception of police. Some also feared that suspects would be less likely to cooperate if they knew they were being taped, or that tapings would create new issues for defendants to challenge in court.

City police officials in 2006 said taping was cost-prohibitive, and feared that a camera could malfunction at an inopportune time. "You can't just sit a camera and a microphone in a room and expect it to work," a police attorney said at a City Council hearing.

In 2008, when state legislators were pushing to require videotaping, another official said taping was a "bad thing. But we need a lot of money if it's going to become a good thing."

Bealefeld said he has long supported videotaping and wants the city Police Department to be deliberate in how it implements the recording policy. He said outside advocates think all it takes is a cheap camera, but the process is far more complicated.

Noting that the department investigates scores of homicides, shootings, and rapes, he said, "Imagine all of those interrogations on suspects that we've identified, and then someone coming along and saying, 'I want a copy you took on April 2.' That has to be archived somewhere. That has to be searchable."

He added, "We can't be in a position to botch that."

In addition, he said, police may need to repaint rooms, improve lighting, or install carpeting to improve acoustics so chairs don't screech along the floor and drown out key audio. An outside consultant, a retired detective from St. Paul, Minn., is training detectives on body language. He said the detectives' basic interrogation tactics don't need improvement for the sake of a rolling camera.

"It has nothing to do with, 'Put away the rubber hose,'" Bealefeld said. "It has everything to do with a different style that's going to be communicated out visually."

For all the debate, Maj. Doug Verzi of the Harford Sheriff's Office said the importance of video interrogations may be blown out of proportion. Video helps, but does not often swing a case one way or the other, he said.

"That said, when you get someone that does make a confession, it sure really is nice to have it recorded," he said.

jfenton@baltsun.com

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