SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Trevor Lahey knows how to play the mind games that compel suspects to confess.
The other day, he was called in to grill a man suspected of beating his 2-year-old stepdaughter raw. "I told him, I know how kids can be. They get on your nerves so much, sometimes you want to beat" them senseless, he said. "Next thing you know, he dropped his head and confessed."
A sheriff's deputy in rural Morgan County, Lahey has learned to treat the most repellent criminals like buddies. He talks to them as if he knows what it's like to smack the wife or pin the girl down for sex, because after all, she wanted it, didn't she, pal? The tactic works. But Lahey is feeling pressure to find a strategy that's "more politically correct," as he puts it. Because soon, many of his interrogations will be recorded, start to finish.
For the first time, what he says in that cramped interview room will be scrutinized as much as the suspect's response. "That scares me a little," Lahey said.
Stung by allegations of police brutality and coerced confessions, Illinois will require all law enforcement officers to record their interrogations in homicide cases starting in summer 2005. All interrogations of juvenile suspects must also be recorded on video- or audiotape.
Minnesota and Alaska have had similar policies for years, and taping mandates are now under consideration in Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine and New Jersey. The California Assembly last year approved a bill encouraging videotaped interrogations; it did not pass the Senate. As momentum for the concept builds, more than a dozen law-enforcement agencies -- from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Prince George's County, Md. -- have decided not to wait for statewide requirements, but to begin recording interrogations in their most serious felony cases.
Proponents insist that detectives have nothing to worry about: If they're doing everything by the book, why should they care if a hidden camera records them?
But to many investigators, the camera fundamentally changes the dynamics of an interrogation. Officers are used to conducting interviews in private, or perhaps with a partner, then summarizing the tense hours of back-and-forth in a few curt paragraphs. With a camera rolling, the windowless interview room is suddenly open to the world.
Investigators must consider how their tactics will play before a jury. And how a defense lawyer might pick apart their words.
"We're no longer just detectives now. We have to be actors ... and we have to be attorneys," said Master Sgt. Steve Johnson, chief investigator for the Sheriff's Department in St. Clair County, Ill.
Consider a child-molestation case: To gain rapport with the suspect, an officer might suggest the child made up the abuse, or exaggerated the story to get attention, or took a friendly gesture the wrong way. Anything to get the suspect talking about his contact with the victim.
Off tape, that's no big deal. Recorded and played back to jurors, however, it could undermine the case, because it might sound as though the investigating officer didn't truly believe the victim's story.
"If you assassinate the character of the victim on tape, that can be damaging," said Sgt. Neil Nelson, a detective in St. Paul, Minn., where interrogations have been recorded since 1994. "If you say something on tape, it in some way becomes true."
Nelson recalls a Minnesota case in which a man allegedly beat his wife to death by whipping her with an extension cord and bashing her head with a tire iron. The suspect admitted the whipping, explaining that his wife liked rough sex. That was as far as he would go.
Trying to goad the suspect by mocking his story, "the investigator must have said 30 times during the interview, 'C'mon, you can't kill someone by whipping them on the butt,' " Nelson said.
When the autopsy came back, however, the fatal blows did turn out to have come from the extension cord: The victim bled to death from internal bruises.
"When you had the officer on tape saying over and over, there's no way you can kill someone by whipping them, it took away from the intent part of the case," Nelson said. The taped remarks opened the door for the defense to claim the death was accidental, not premeditated. As it turned out, the wife had so many injuries that the jury didn't buy it; the husband was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
A Cautionary Tale
But Nelson uses the case as a cautionary tale in seminars he holds across the nation to train officers in camera-friendly interview techniques.
"I tell my classes, 'On tape, your words live forever,' " Nelson said.
At a recent seminar here in central Illinois, former Barrington Police Officer Dave Zulawski, now a consultant, echoed that warning. Handing copies of the recording law to 25 students from several law-enforcement agencies, he told them: "Remember, everything you do will be on tape for God and everyone else to see."