Editorial: Suffolk right to use videotape for interrogations

February 11, 2008

The movement to videotape police interrogations usually runs into skepticism from police or prosecutors, or both. But they almost always come around to the view that it's a vast improvement. Now, in Nassau and Suffolk, taping time has arrived. It's a wise and overdue step forward, before pending state legislation can make recording mandatory.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy said last week in his State of the County address that Police Commissioner Richard Dormer and District Attorney Thomas Spota have agreed to go ahead. This comes more than two decades after a Newsday series showed that Suffolk police had relied excessively on confessions - and just a few weeks after an appellate court ordered a new trial for Martin Tankleff, whose unsigned and later repudiated confession led to his 1990 conviction for killing his parents.

Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice has consistently advocated videotaping interrogations. And Nassau's new police commissioner, Lawrence Mulvey, is working with her on it. The DA and the police have a grant to pay for the logistics of going forward.

Some fear that taping interrogations makes it tougher to get confessions. But a study by the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law found: "Virtually every officer with whom we spoke, having given custodial recordings a try, was enthusiastically in favor of the practice."

The report said that the taping can "dramatically reduce the number of defense motions to suppress statements and confessions" and let judges and juries see for themselves how an interrogation went. The tapes can also serve as a training device to improve questioning techniques.

If both counties handle it right, those outcomes should happen here - starting with homicides and branching out to other serious crimes. In Suffolk, Dormer insists his department has grown beyond its past practices on confessions. If police use this new tool well, it can help assure the general public that, when defendants make confessions, that result comes from a process that is not only tough but fair.