Beginning July 11, 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice will reverse its long-standing policy forbidding federal agents from recording interrogations. Instead, with narrow exceptions for national security or immediate safety needs, the national police forces will require agents to record these interrogations of criminal defendants.
For too long, federal agents have been allowed to be the sole arbiter of what was said in interrogation rooms. Typically conducting these “interviews” in pairs, one Special Agent does the asking while a second agent takes the notes that eventually become the official report, the “Form 302.” Where agents misunderstood or misnoted – and sometimes, flat out misrepresented – what defendants had said, though, challenges before the juries failed a vast majority of the time. Worse, where defendants denied the statements that agents insisted were true, felony charges and enhanced sentences for “false statements” were not uncommon.
The FBI used to insist that recording interrogations could impede the rapport needed with defendants, to get them talking, while agents had testified to defendants’ statements for decades with challenges only rarely succeeding. The scariest reason that FBI formerly forbade interrogation recording, though, was this:
“perfectly lawful and acceptable interviewing techniques do not always come across in recorded fashion to lay persons as proper means of obtaining information from defendants.” [Memo, FBI Office of General Counsel, “Electronic Recording of Confessions and Witness Interviews,” 3/23/2006, at page 3]
So besides allowing the federal agents alone to assure jurors what was “actually” said in a closed interrogation room, failure to record the interviews also spared We the People from seeing the dirty business of national police “interviewing.”
As of July 11, though, this will change. At long last, we can depend on more than just an interested cop’s statement about what defendants’ say behind closed doors. Almost as importantly, We the People can finally observe some of the more hard-core interview “techniques,” and test whether they do, actually, produce truthful confessions.