Published December 08. 2013 4:00AM
State prosecutors, defense attorneys and juries can expect a clearer picture of what goes on behind closed doors during police interrogations in the new year.
A state law requiring all police departments to make audio and video recordings of interrogations of suspects in a host of serious crimes when they are detained takes effect Jan. 1. The law mandates recordings of suspects in capital, Class A and Class B felonies - everything from murder and first-degree sexual assault to certain child pornography, larceny and burglary crimes.
Most local municipal departments - including New London, Groton and Norwich - say they are ready or in the process of updating their recording equipment to comply with the law and have been helped along the way by state funding.
The practice of recording interrogations is already commonplace at the Waterford Police Department, one of a handful of sites chosen in 2008 to receive state money to install and use the equipment. The department is using $13,629 of a $39,000 state grant to update the equipment that has been in place during that time.
"It's served us very well through the years," Waterford Lt. Brett Mahoney said.
All of the Waterford department's supervisors, along with many officers, are trained to use the equipment. Mahoney acknowledges that the sheer number of crimes covered by the new law could become a strain for his and other smaller departments "until it becomes the new normal."
"I came from an era in which I wrote all my reports on paper and the supervisor would come and correct it with a big red pen," Mahoney said. "Computers changed all of that. This will be just like that."
While police statewide initially balked when the idea of recording all interrogations was first pitched by the legislature, Mahoney said there are obvious benefits for the prosecution if a confession is on tape. The recordings also protect police from false claims of mistreatment.
"A picture is worth a thousand words. The video camera is not going to lie to you," he said.
Norwich Detective Sgt. James Tetreault said detectives in his department have experience using recording equipment, but mostly in cases of more serious crimes, such as murder.
Because the new law mandates the recording of interviews in a wide variety of crimes, he expects there will be a need to train more officers. The department is using a portion of a state grant to upgrade its hard drives.
Mike Lawlor, undersecretary for the criminal justice division of the Office of Policy and Management, said the need for training and equipment were part of the reason why the state's public safety and criminal justice departments initially were opposed to the idea. Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane said with the recordings comes a heavier burden on prosecutors, who are the ones to view and pay for transcriptions of the videos. But both said the law does take a proactive approach to what likely eventually would have been required by a future state Supreme Court ruling.
In the end, Kane said, his office, in conjunction with the Police Officers Standards and Training Council, the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association and state police, developed the standards for the mandated systems.
One-time grants were offered by OPM's criminal justice police and planning division. To date, OPM reports, $2.65 million has been distributed to municipal departments across the state.
Grant applications reveal that departments may use the funds to buy not only recording equipment, but "other eligible law enforcement equipment," as long as their interrogation rooms are compliant with the standards.
State police, who intend to outfit all of their barracks, are in the bid process to complete the work, according to state police spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance.
With a few exceptions, such as a spontaneous confession or statement by someone charged with a crime, the recordings are mandated for any kind of oral or written statement taken while the person is in custody.
New London County State's Attorney Michael Regan said the videos will be more work for his office, as well as for defense attorneys who initially will view the recordings. Interrogations in some cases - and therefore the recordings - can last for six hours or more, but vary depending on the case.
Before the law, police typically would interrogate suspects and summarize their statements into written reports, which are then signed by the suspects. Defense attorneys have long made arguments about the validity of the statements, or how they were obtained.
"To me, everybody is pretty much on board," Regan said. "Any time (police) interview a defendant, we usually like to have it on video."
He said it protects police from the inevitable "Oh, I didn't say that."
"It doesn't matter how severe the case is, that defense can come up," Regan said.