Police say tapes help cases stick

Juries, public increasingly expect to see video of suspect interviews

When Lawrence Police wanted to interview a suspect in a 3-year-old baby’s death in late June, they drove him all the way from Kansas City to Lawrence before starting their questioning.

The reason for the drive: A detective wanted to be able to make a video and audio recording of the statements made by suspect Jason Dillon.

The episode is one example of an increase in the recording of suspects’ interviews by the Lawrence Police Department. It’s something that, as recently as 2004, the department didn’t routinely do.

“I think you’re going to see a lot more of it,” said Capt. David Cobb, a department spokesman. “We’re a lot more comfortable with it now, and we encourage it. We’re not making it mandatory.”

It’s not just murder suspects who are being filmed. LPD detectives also recorded an interview in May with a 19-year-old man charged with raping a 15-year-old girl after daring her to drink shots of alcohol – an interview that likely wouldn’t have been filmed just a year ago.

More ‘user-friendly’

The department’s procedures, last revised in late 2003, say that “when possible or practical,” officers should record in-custody interviews with suspects in violent felony crimes. But one of the problems, Cobb said, was that it wasn’t always logistically possible.

Two CBS television monitors show murder defendant Thomas E. Murray, live at left, listening to pre-recorded footage of his interrogation by police, shown at right, in this Feb. 22 file photo. The interrogation video helped convict Murray of the murder of his ex-wife, Carmin Ross.

For example, detectives often work late at night, and Cobb said it wasn’t feasible for the department to assign two detectives to interview a person while a third person was called onto duty to monitor the recorder and make sure the tape or DVD disc didn’t run out. It complicated matters that some of the department’s interview rooms had VHS while others had DVD recorders.

As a result, LPD officers either didn’t record interviews with suspects or, in some major cases, recorded a summarized statement from the suspect at the end of the interview. For example, there was no videotape of detectives’ July 2004 interview with Lawrence resident Martin K. Miller, who was recently convicted of murdering his wife.

But in the past month, all the department’s interview rooms have been standardized to record directly to a computer hard drive, Cobb said. The file can then be copied onto DVD.

“We’ve just made it a lot more user-friendly,” Cobb said. “We can tape up to eight hours continuously and know that we have that saved and will be able to use it.”

Some resistance

In recent years, the department has faced criticism from some in the community, including defense attorneys, who questioned why LPD lagged behind other agencies in the use of video.

Cobb said there was “a little bit of resistance” among detectives. Many have been doing their jobs successfully for years and didn’t feel they needed it, he said.

But he said the department understands that juries and the public increasingly expect to see videotape. The taping can benefit officers, too, he said, because the public can see that real-life interviews are different from the browbeating commonly shown on TV dramas.

“In the long run, these are tools that work for everybody,” Cobb said.

One person who’s pleased about the trend is Dist. Atty. Charles Branson, a former defense attorney elected in November to replace two-term incumbent Christine Kenney. He said he’s encouraged the use of videotape since taking office, but he said his taking office was not the reason for the changes at LPD.

Branson said the recent murder trial of Kansas State University professor Thomas E. Murray, who was convicted of stabbing and beating his wife at her home north of Lawrence, showed the need for video. One of the key pieces of evidence was a 10-hour videotaped interview recorded at the Riley County Police Department in Manhattan.

“If it hadn’t have been for that videotape, the jury wouldn’t have convicted,” Branson said.

LPD also is planning for more widespread use of video cameras in patrol cars, Cobb said. He said that right now, the only cars with working video cameras are the seven assigned to the traffic unit.

The department plans to eventually install digital recorders in the remaining 23 patrol cars and eventually switch the traffic unit’s cameras to digital cameras, he said. The changes will happen gradually in coming years, he said.