Oakland police stop short of taping full interviews
By Mary Fricker, Judy Campbell and Paul Rosynsky, Chauncey Bailey Project
The Oakland Police Department is nearly alone among key law enforcement agencies in the area in its refusal to tape entire interviews with suspects and witnesses, a survey by The Chauncey Bailey Project has found.
The department’s policy of tape-recording only portions of interviews has come under criticism in two recent high-profile cases, including the murder of Oakland Post editor Chauncey Bailey.
Oakland officials say their policy produces the best outcome because it allows them to win the trust of the suspect or witness in a non-threatening environment, before they turn on a tape recorder.
But six other Bay Area agencies told the Oakland Tribune they routinely, and often covertly, tape entire interviews because they believe a tape is the best possible evidence to take to a prosecutor and a jury.
“Recording is the best evidence, and we encourage it if at all possible,” said homicide Lt. John Murphy with the San Francisco Police Department, which investigates an average of 85 homicides a year. As of Friday, it had reached 96, compared to Oakland’s 117.
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A notable exception to the practice of full recording is the FBI, which tapes interrogations only on a limited basis and only when the taping has first been officially approved, according to spokesman Bill Carter in Washington, D.C. He said that taping can hurt the rapport investigators develop with those being interviewed.
Similarly, Oakland investigators — by longstanding policy — often turn their tape recorders on only after suspects and witnesses have first had a chance to give helpful testimony in private.
Oakland’s Assistant Police Chief Howard Jordan declined to comment on the practice, saying he can not discuss matters related in any way to Bailey’s murder. A gag order is in effect throughout the department regarding that case and its ongoing investigation.
Deputy Police Chief Jeffrey Israel told KQED-FM earlier this month his investigators find many people don’t want to talk on tape, at least initially, although generally speaking the department would like to record everything from the beginning of the interview. KQED is a Chauncey Bailey Project partner.
He said the department hopes next year to outfit its interview rooms with equipment that will secretly tape interrogations — as an experiment, to see how it goes.
Oakland’s interrogation policy has been thrust into the spotlight by Bailey’s murder Aug. 2 and also by the recent trial of Alfonza Phillips, convicted Friday of murdering Antar Bey, former leader of the Your Black Muslim Bakery, in a failed carjacking last year.In both cases, defense attorneys questioned partial tape recordings of interrogations.
But a few minutes later, when investigators briefly left Bey IV alone with Broussard, at Broussard’s request, police did not tape the two men’s conversation.
Four minutes later Longmire and Cruz walked back in the room, and Broussard, who had originally denied killing Bailey, tearfully admitted to the crime and agreed to make a taped statement, according to police records.
Broussard’s attorney, LeRue Grim, claims Bey IV told his client in the private meeting to take the fall for the murder. In a telephone conversation taped by police the next day, a distressed Broussard told an acquaintance Bey IV had “told on me” and he “told me to tell them what happened.”
Deputy Police Chief Israel told KQED he would prefer to have had that conversation recorded, but he does not think the absence of a recording will be a problem in prosecuting the case.
The Alameda County Public Defender has long complained about the partial recordings, saying they raise doubts about the integrity of the justice process and encourage questions about whether confessions have been coerced.
The Alameda County District Attorney’s office declined to comment Monday, saying it can not comment on an issue that could be related in any way to cases not completed.
“We have to be really careful about commenting on things that could potentially be issues in cases,” said Deputy District Attorney Jeff Rubin.Assistant Public Defender Ray Keller, who heads the public defender’s felony trial staff, supports the covert recording of all interrogations, from start to finish.
“There’s absolutely no legitimate reason not to record the interrogation. A growing number of police departments are doing it,” Keller said.
In San Francisco, the departments’ 19 inspectors decide on a case by case basis when to record interrogations, but the usual practice — and the department’s preference — is all interrogations be recorded from start to finish, Murphy said.
If the person being interviewed objects, police can simply turn off the tape. But they may continue to videotape secretly, he said.
San Leandro police video and audiotape all interrogations conducted at the police department, sometimes covertly, using state-of-the-art equipment, said Tom Overton, a police lieutenant in charge of investigations.
They record interrogations in a broad range of cases, from misdemeanors like vandalism to the two or three homicides they investigate each year, he said.
“It gives a person a chance to explain their side of the story,” Overton said. “Attorneys and juries get to hear their exact words.
“Police departments in Berkeley, Fremont and Hayward, and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, also generally record entire interrogations, sometimes covertly. These departments typically have fewer than 10 homicides a year. Richmond police did not return calls on the subject, but Assistant Public Defender Ray Keller said the department tapes from start to finish.
Spokespeople for the departments stressed the benefits of full recordings.
“If you show a suspect and they’re telling in their own words what happened, it doesn’t get any more compelling than that,” said Sgt. J.D. Nelson at the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.