Taping police sessions urged

City Council bill would require video of interrogations

November 22, 2006|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,sun reporter

The Baltimore City Council is reviewing a bill that would require the videotaping of police interrogations of witnesses or suspects in violent crimes - a measure opposed by police but endorsed by public defenders who represent suspects.

Councilman James B. Kraft, chairman of the council's public safety subcommittee, said he introduced the legislation because he believes it would decrease allegations of improper behavior by police officers. Kraft said a video would protect officers against false charges and protect witnesses against intimidation or illegal questioning.

Representatives of the Police Department - who say they generally record statements but do not use video - said at a hearing yesterday that they have doubts about using cameras, and one high-ranking detective called it costly and potentially harmful for prosecutors.

FOR THE RECORD - An article yesterday about a Baltimore City Council hearing on videotaping of police interrogations of witnesses misstated who introduced the proposal. It was proposed by City Council President Sheila Dixon. In addition, the article incorrectly characterized the measure. It is a council resolution, not a bill.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Col. Fred H. Bealefeld III, chief of detectives, said at the hearing that his department is studying a video system used in Chicago. Bealefeld said it cost that department millions of dollars to install and run the cameras in interrogation rooms.

But the Office of the Public Defender dismissed the cost issue and praised the proposal, saying it could be a significant development in criminal proceedings.

"From our perspective in the defense field, what it does is show you things you would not be privy to when somebody gets on the stand and testifies," said Deputy Public Defender Nancy S. Forster. "You look on video and can see if police coerce it out of them or trick it out of them. It allows us to question the credibility of the police officer. It also makes certain that the entirety is taped."

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg has urged the General Assembly to pass similar legislation the past two years, but without success.

Rosenberg, reached by phone, said he understands such a system might be costly for local government.

"But you're talking about a matter of justice," Rosenberg said. "On a scale, that gives a greater weight than the cost."

During the hearing, police officials asked for time to study the feasibility of video-recorded investigations, a request backed by the city state's attorney's office.

Deputy State's Attorney Cynthia Jones said her office needs more information to determine the legal challenges that videotaped testimony could present.

The subject was first broached in September when Council President Sheila Dixon introduced a resolution inviting Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm to explain his department's policy.

"From our office's perspective, the thing we're looking for are the nuts and bolts of the legalities of having these custodial investigations," Jones said. "I think President Dixon putting this out there is based on calls she's getting from the public.

"It's a process. But before you say you're going to do it, you better know the pluses and minuses," she said.

Jones also questioned whether the city has the right to enact such legislation, echoing a comment made by Kraft during the public forum.

Kraft acknowledged that he is unsure whether state law gives the City Council the authority to force the Police Department to change the way it conducts interrogations. The councilman said financing the proposal would be the biggest obstacle. "That is the real No. 1 issue," he said.

Police officials also said they feared that a camera would malfunction at an inopportune time.

"You can't just sit a camera and a microphone in a room and expect it to work," said Jordan V. Watts Jr., a lawyer for the police. "There are a lot of problems with doing that in crucial times where you need that statement to come across. If you're doing an investigation, and [a suspect] bows his head or puts his head down, and you lose those words, it can become a problem."

Kraft said he hopes the measure will pass when it is scheduled for a first vote at the next council meeting Dec. 4.

Members of the Young Leaders 4 Baltimore attended the hearing and spoke in favor of the proposal. The group has demanded a change to the Police Department's interrogations policy after allegations that a detective raped a 16-year-old girl at a district police station in July.

Members of the group said a video recording would severely reduce claims of misconduct.

"This is for the betterment of the people," said Hassan Giordano, the first to speak at the hearing. "It's for the safety of the individual and the safety of the officer."

brent.jones@baltsun.com

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