Last week, I took a load of papers to a recycler to be shredded. The office was a small aluminum building surrounded by mounds of cardboard and paper. It wasn't exactly Fort Knox. Still, a sign on the door warned that everything inside the building was being audio-video recorded.
Businesses record constantly. Banks. Stores. Gas stations. Almost any operation that can be robbed equips itself with cameras. Security is a cost of doing business.
We know, if only thanks to TV cop shows, that police cars are now equipped with cameras. Those cameras supply a measure of security for police — proof that they acted properly. And sometimes the cameras catch evidence that supports a defendant in court.
But what happens at the police station itself? What kind of recording do Arkansas police do when they bring someone in for questioning? Answer: As much or as little as they choose.
If you were brought into a police station for questioning about a crime, your interrogation might be recorded entirely. But that's unlikely. Usually, a video camera or audio recorder will be turned on only when police think you're ready to make a statement, and that can be after hours of unrecorded questioning. Often, no electronic recording is made at all. In those cases, the only record of what you've said will be an officer's paraphrased notes.
Police used to have to rely on pencils and paper. And even when audio-video equipment became available, it was expensive and tapes were a pain to store. But we're in a new era now, with inexpensive recorders and easy computer storage. It's time for police and courts to catch up.
Last month, the Arkansas Supreme Court took a half-step toward doing so, announcing that it was changing its Rules of Criminal Procedure regarding interrogations. The proposed rule says that "whenever practical, a custodial interrogation ... should be recorded."
That's not good enough. Police interrogations often result in criminal charges. Statements made during them become evidence at trials, where liberty — and sometimes life — hang in the balance. The Arkansas Supreme Court should set a high standard for that evidence.
Experts from the American Bar Association, American Psychiatric Association, National Association of District Attorneys, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and many police agencies agree: electronic recording improves the accuracy, fairness, and reliability of statements taken by police.
The weak rule the Supreme Court has proposed relies on judges to decide whether to admit statements that were not electronically recorded. That passes the buck. We need a Supreme Court rule that is clear and uniform, and that applies equally to every police agency in Arkansas. Seventeen other states require that, and it's time for Arkansas to adopt a strong recording rule too.
The Arkansas Supreme Court is accepting public comments on its proposed electronic recording rule until July 1. Please write to the court (at 625 Marshall St., Little Rock, AR 72201) before that deadline.
Tell the justices that police should record custodial interrogations from beginning to end, and that courts should not admit evidence from interviews unless they were entirely recorded.
While there are few reasons to support a half-measure, there are many that favor a strong recording rule—one that requires at least as much as my recycler—especially when the stakes are so high. For one: think what it might have meant for the West Memphis Three if, 18 years ago, police had recorded—not just two disjointed, error-filled statements—but the full eight-hour interrogation of Jessie Misskelley Jr.