Archive for Thursday, September 9, 2004

Camera-shy police criticized

Policy of not videotaping interviews with suspects comes under fire

September 9, 2004


Count the mother of a 13-year-old rape victim among those who think Lawrence Police should start videotaping interviews with suspects, a practice not in use because police are not convinced it's worth the effort.

"It would be helpful to have it recorded word-for-word so it's not confused or misinterpreted," the mother said.

That's what happened Friday in a Douglas County courtroom, when the lack of a videotaped interview muddied the waters at the sentencing for Michael J. Rayton, 28, of Lawrence. He was the last of four suspects to be convicted in the girl's June 2003 rape.

While arguing against sentencing Rayton to probation, a prosecutor referred to a police report that said Rayton told detectives there was a plan to get the teen drunk to make it easier to have sex with her.

That version of events would cast doubt on a judge's earlier statements indicating the girl voluntarily got drunk and became an "active participant" in the rapes, a reason offered for sentences some have seen as too light for the crime.

But Rayton's defense attorney quickly rebutted prosecutors' argument, saying there was no taped record of police questioning Rayton.

"We don't know what happened in that interview because all we have is a report," attorney Geoffrey Clark said. "We don't have audio or video."

Long-standing issue

For years, members of the local defense bar have been calling for Lawrence Police to use more videotape. Rayton's is at least the second criminal case this year in which lack of videotape has been an issue.

In an aggravated-burglary and sexual-assault trial that ended in a hung jury, one juror said afterward it would have been helpful to have watched an interview with the suspect because it could have shown his demeanor the night of his arrest.

The suspect, Brian K. Charles, later was convicted of aggravated burglary and sexual battery in a separate incident.

In Rayton's hearing Friday, defense attorney Clark said it was possible many of the questions asked in the interview were "yes" or "no" questions and the report reflected a detective's questions more than Rayton's answers. Rayton has an IQ of roughly 75, and testimony in court showed his answers to questions could be shaped by the manner in which they were asked.

Judge Paula Martin ultimately granted Rayton probation rather than a prison sentence, though she didn't say in court whether the lack of videotape had anything to do with her decision.

Dist. Atty. Christine Kenney said constitutional protections against self-incrimination were the reason Rayton's alleged statements about a plan to get the girl drunk didn't come out in any of the co-defendants' cases.

Police view

Sgt. Dan Ward, a Lawrence Police spokesman, said the department was considering changing its videotaping policy because of how often it was coming up as an issue. But he's not convinced it's a problem.

"We don't see that it's a need, other than it's a concern that's been raised numerous times," he said. "We do exist to serve the community, and if the community says they want that, we'll give it to them."

The department's policy now is that, in some major cases, it videotapes brief statements made by suspects, often at the end of hours of questioning. He said officers were trained to take detailed notes and write down what questions they asked.

Videotape is not just an issue in interview rooms.

Except for seven cars in the department's traffic unit, which were purchased with a 2002 grant, the department's squad cars aren't equipped with cameras. The cameras in traffic unit cars began rolling in November 2003. Ward said the department was reviewing how they worked as it considered whether to install more.

If the department does decide to do more videotaping, it would take time to get a policy written. Videotaping and transcribing interviews could be costly and time-consuming, and could leave the department open to criticism when certain interviews aren't recorded, Ward said.

Other agencies, including the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, regularly videotape suspect interviews. But Ward said comparisons with the Sheriff's Office were unfair, in part because the Police Department handles a higher number of interviews each day.

Former officer critical

Greg Robinson, a defense attorney and former Lawrence Police officer, said he was told informally during his training that the reason the department didn't videotape was so that officers, not videotapes, would get to shape the story of what happened in the interview room.

Ward, who also oversees the department's internal affairs division, said it would be unacceptable if Robinson was told as much.

"If he really was told that, he needs to come forward with it and file a complaint," Ward said.

Robinson said if a case was important enough to bring a suspect to the Police Department and to an interview room, it was worth videotaping.

"It protects both parties," he said. "It protects the police and shows their truth and honesty."

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