A MATTER OF RECORD
Scranton Police Dept. to begin recording interrogations while facing scrutiny for destroying handwritten notes
The Scranton Police Department expects to begin recording interrogations this month, putting the county’s largest municipal agency at the forefront of a statewide policy issue that law enforcement, civil rights groups and the Legislature wrangled with for years.
The process, Chief Carl Graziano said, has been a yearslong effort dogged by the tedious reality of crafting law enforcement policy. That policy should be finalized and in place by the end of this month.
“We’ve added additional recording to rooms that do not have recording now,” Graziano said. “Four rooms now, which would be activated (with recording devices) with a simple push of the button.”
The question of what happens inside the department’s interview rooms, called custodial interrogations, likely will be a central issue in litigation in Ryan Taylor’s criminal homicide case. Police said the homeless man confessed to killing a woman in February, though that confession was not recorded and police did not have Taylor write or sign a confession. Notes taken by police during the interrogation were not preserved.
The confession is substantial evidence against him and a legal challenge from his attorney, Matthew Comerford, to suppress it is expected. Comerford is critical because without a recording or set of notes taken during the interrogation, there is no corroboration of Taylor’s confession.
In Pennsylvania, recording interviews is not mandated.
Several years ago, the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that seeks exonerations for those wrongfully convicted, surveyed the southeast portion of the state and Allegheny County and found 97 percent of police departments did not have policies on recording interrogations, Marissa Bluestine, the organization’s executive director, said.
“We were pretty astounded how few have any protocols,” Bluestine said.
Recording such interviews is good practice and can protect the rights of defendants and shield officers from claims of misconduct, advocates say.
Across the country, 18 states and the District of Columbia mandate recording of certain interrogations by legislative statute while another six require the practice through court decisions, according to the national arm of the Innocence Project based in New York City. More than two-thirds of the populations of Arizona, Hawaii, Rhode Island and Utah are covered by law enforcement agencies that voluntarily record interrogations by policy or practice.
A question of how
The question of whether such consequential interviews should be recorded as a requirement is an issue that has drawn disagreement for years. The issue was explored in a pair of 2011 reports analyzing the causes of wrongful convictions.
On one side, a joint state government advisory committee suggested the Legislature pass a bill requiring police to record custodial interrogations whenever a Miranda warning is mandated, among other recommendations. They also called for an exception to existing law that would allow police to record interactions without obtaining permission to record. Such a statement could be used at trial, but a judge would instruct a jury that the police had disobeyed a statutory requirement — language that would essentially allow juries to disregard unapproved recordings of confessions, critics of the report say.
A separate 2011 report penned by district attorneys, law enforcement executives and victim advocates faulted the advisory committee’s approach as flawed and called for a pilot program to study fair and cost-effective implementation. An immediate mandate, they wrote “is a perfect example of a law that would simply reduce the total number of convictions without respect to ‘wrongfulness’ while doing nothing to improve the accuracy of verdicts.”
By 2015, state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a Montgomery County Republican, sponsored a bill which, in early iterations, mandated custodial interrogation for specified crimes while inside designated interview rooms at a police station.
It didn’t last. By the time the bill reached the House Judiciary Committee in October, its language had changed to clear a legal hurdle for officers using bodyworn cameras.
That bill died in committee last session but was reintroduced and signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf in July. The final bill did not contain language on custodial interrogations.
Patrick Cawley, the executive director of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the bill’s final shape leaves custodial interrogation policy up to the local departments but makes it easier to practice. For example, it removes an expectation to privacy during interactions between the public and police, needed to successfully use body cameras, but which is also helpful for recording interrogations.
“Some police officers say, ‘As soon as I say I’m recording, the person’s going to clam up,’” Cawley said.
The ACLU of Pennsylvania, supportive of recording custodial interrogations, came out against the bill because it said the legislation instead made successfully requesting body camera footage nearly impossible for members of the public.
“I can tell you that the law enforcement lobby was actively advocating to stop that language,” Andy Hoover, a spokesman for the ACLU, said.
Attorney Greg Rowe, chief of the legislation and policy unit for the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, agreed recorded interrogations are important in the search for truth but said voluntary adoption is more feasible right now.
Local practice, local concern
In Scranton, the issue came under scrutiny after testimony in the Taylor case. In a July preliminary hearing, Detective Joseph Lafferty testified Taylor’s confession was not memorialized by audio or video recording.
Taylor’s verbal confession, police say, centers on his admission that he shoved the victim, Danee Mower, into a freezing river on Feb. 28 after a dispute over a blunt, which is a marijuana cigarette rolled with cigar wraps. Taylor declined to give police a written statement.
Comerford, Taylor’s attorney, asked the court to order the police to preserve handwritten notes taken during Taylor’s interrogation in an effort to find corroboration of his confession. The notes were destroyed four months before the defense request. Destroying notes is a longstanding police practice also not prohibited by statute or judicial action.
Pretrial motions are expected in the coming weeks.
Lackawanna County District Attorney Shane Scanlon said the ability for a jury to hear the defendant’s own words makes for powerful evidence, but requiring all interrogations be recorded poses a number of practical problems.
“Realistically, you’re looking at a county with so many local police departments who are financially strapped and really don’t have the equipment to implement these policies,” Scanlon said. “I think it would be a burden, to be honest . ... You have to be able to balance the real world with what we do every day.”
The state police have a policy in place on recording interrogations, said Cpl. Adam Reed, a spokesman in Harrisburg. The general practice is to record as much as possible.
Trooper Mark Keyes, a spokesman for the Dunmore-based Troop R, said the Dunmore barracks has recording equipment installed in interview rooms. The state is in the process of putting in equipment at rooms in three troop substations. On occasion, recording equipment is temporarily set up in unequipped rooms to memorialize interrogations of high-profile suspects, such as convicted sniper Eric Matthew Frein’s murder confession in the Blooming Grove barracks in 2014.
The state attorney general’s office “cannot comment on investigative procedures,” spokesman Joe Grace said when emailed inquiries on policies and practices.
One local police department, Blakely, already uses body cameras, and Chief Guy Salerno said they are used for “all interviews.” Salerno declined to release the department’s policy on camera use.
“Officers are required to wear body cameras when they interview anyone from the public at any time with only some exceptions,” Salerno said.
Several other local departments said they do not have interview rooms or recording equipment.
“I’m not interested in recording right now,” Archbald Police Chief Tim Trently said. “I think if we did have an interrogation room, we’d look at it, but right now we don’t have the facility to have that type of equipment.”
Clarks Summit Police Chief Christopher Yarns said recording interrogations could be beneficial from time to time. However, the department is small and reality is dominated by dollars and cents.
“I think I would like to have body cameras but I would need a lot (of money) for it,” Yarns said.
‘More recording, not less’
Bluestine, of the Innocence Project, said legislation will be necessary at some point to achieve universal practice among the state’s more than 1,200 law enforcement agencies.
For now, though, her organization supports voluntary policy change among departments. She said the cost of storing and retrieving video data is expensive and a legitimate issue. The answer, she said, lies in government appropriation.
“We accept that’s an expense we as a society are willing to accommodate and then do it,” Bluestine said. “I don’t accept that there’s no answer for that.”
Whether by mandate or voluntary adoption, policing at large is trending toward “more recording, not less,” said Jon Shane, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice who specializes in police policy and practice, among other fields.
Part of it centers on integrity, he said. Part of it also comes from a decades-long shift in public sentiment toward police.
Those who enjoyed “blanket obedience” to their word in generations past are today on a more even keel with everyone else. Questioning the official record — and being held accountable if the video differs — today goes toward preserving integrity, he said.
“You’re sending a guy to state prison . ... Is that too much to ask?” Shane said. “We should want that for our criminal justice system.” Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9144; @jkohutTT on Twitter
‘I’m not interested in recording right now. I think if we did have an interrogation room, we’d look at it, but right now we don’t have the facility to have that type of equipment.’ Archbald Police Chief Tim Trently