By Robert K. Gill, Assistant Criminal District Attorney, Tarrant County, Texas; and Ernie Van Der Leest, MS, Criminal Investigator/Forensic Video Analyst, Tarrant County, Texas Criminal District Attorney’s Office
he job is not finished until the paperwork is complete” is often heard from Assistant Chief Investigator Jim Rizy—a reminder of how important attention to detail is in daily life at the courthouse. When it comes to the safety of law enforcement personnel, attention to detail is an important consideration for all interactions with those who are detained, arrested, interviewed, and prosecuted. This article explains how attention to detail enhances safety and productivity in a secure interview room setting.
Video and audio-recorded interviews of suspects and witnesses have become a routine occurrence in law enforcement facilities around the United States. Whether a department has three sworn officers or one thousand, the safety and usefulness of an interview room obviously depends on the skills of the interviewer. Equally important are the design of the room and the equipment used to record the events in the room. Interview rooms are intended for eliciting critical information related to a criminal offense from suspects and witnesses. In order to assist the interviewer with this process, the interview room needs to be conducive to the interview process. A smartly designed interview room will allow officers to maintain a high standard of safety while at the same time producing a quality recording that a prosecutor will be able to successfully offer at trial for a jury’s consideration.
There are important considerations in constructing an interview room whether the department is retrofitting existing space or constructing a new structure. First and foremost, the design of the room should be focused on the safety of all persons who are in and around the room during an interview. Conducting a safe interview does not require a large room. Like most endeavors in law enforcement, the design and functionality of an interview room does not have a one-size-fits-all standard. Variances can be great depending on a department’s size, budget, and interview volume. Surveys conducted by the IACP for its current work on the National Institute of Justice’s (NIJ) Criminal Justice Interview Room Recording System Standard (https://justnet.org/standards/Interview_Room_Video_Systems.html) found interview rooms of all shapes and sizes. The average interview room size was found to be approximately 8 feet by 10 feet with a 10-foot ceiling. An interview room should be no larger than 144 square feet, but ideally around 100 square feet. This size of room is adequate for three people with a small table and chairs. The interviewers’ chairs should be movable while the interviewee’s chair should be stationary. The table should be positioned against one wall so that it does not become a barrier between the primary interviewer and the interviewee.
More important than the size of the interview room is its design. The positioning of the person to be interviewed is perhaps the most important design safety consideration. For safety reasons, the law enforcement officer that will be conducting the interview should always be positioned between the interviewee and the exit door. This is necessary to allow the officer a means of egress if the interviewee becomes violent and also allows backup officers a clear line of sight to the interviewee when entering the room. These considerations are especially important because more interview rooms are being converted to network-based recording systems that allow remote viewing of the interview process. The days when the observers of the interview were just the around the corner listening for any signs of trouble are numbered.
Another necessary measure for officers’ safety is the ability to secure the interviewee to a location within the interview room. This is done by creating a means to secure a set of handcuffs or a leg restraint to an anchor within the interview room. For example, during a recent renovation of the main interview room at the Criminal District Attorney’s office in Tarrant County, Texas, a simple but effective anchor was installed to the floor with three feet of chain attached to it. This simple device is designed to connect to a set of leg restraints thereby anchoring the interviewee in a position in the interview room. Additionally, the interviewee’s chair should be fixed in the desired spot in the interview room. This is important not only for interview room security, but also for the purpose of producing the highest quality recording possible. If the interviewee will always be in a particular spot in the interview room, cameras and microphones can be permanently mounted for optimum recording quality.
Security of this interview room was further enhanced by moving the room’s lighting controls to the adjoining hallway and installing a high-security deadbolt and a peep-hole on the exterior of interview room door. As an additional safety measure, a panic button is recommended to be installed inside the interview room within arm’s reach of the interviewer. If an interview is conducted one-on-one, an exterior monitoring station located close to the interview room should be manned by a fellow officer.
The interview room should also be designed and constructed to produce the best quality video and audio recordings. Exterior sound infiltration is a major concern not only for the recording process; but also for the interview process as a whole. For all interviews, whether recorded or not, the interviewer needs a quiet place that is free of any distraction. For officers’ safety, removable, sound-absorbing wall panels were ruled out in the construction because the necessary mounting hardware can be converted into an improvised weapon. It was more cost-effective to remove the existing drywall and insulate the interview room walls with the latest in sound-deadening insulation.
A further benefit to removing the interior wall covering of the interview room was that the electricians and forensic video experts were given direct access to the interior of the walls to install electrical wiring, cameras, microphones, and network connections.
The above-mentioned NIJ project for interview rooms covers the number of cameras and microphones that should be installed in an optimal interview room. For example, the interview room at the Criminal District Attorney’s office in Tarrant County, Texas, is adequately covered by two cameras. One camera captures an overall view of the interview room so that viewers are able to see all occupants of the room. The second camera is dedicated to the location of the interviewee. This camera’s function is to place enough pixels on target to provide the jury the best image possible of the interviewee in order to capture his or her posture, facial expressions, and body language. Proper positioning of microphones within the room will optimize the sound quality of the recording. In order to prevent tampering with the microphone, choose a high-quality, flush-mounted wall microphone placed close to the interviewee’s chair. This placement will assist in picking up subtle words that many times are very low in volume. With special thanks to Seattle, Washington, homicide detective Al Cruise, the interview room is equipped with an extra microphone that allows investigators to connect a digital recorder outside the room. This extra microphone also serves as a backup to the DVR. The recording device for the audio/visual information should have a redundant backup.
The finished interview room was painted with non-reflective 18 percent gray paint to comply with the national standard for background color preference for mug shots. Bright lighting and a small table useful for writing or as a laptop stand were installed. To minimize distractions, there is nothing else in the room; therefore, there is nothing available to be fashioned into an improvised weapon.
The last and perhaps most important piece of interview room equipment is a gun locker mounted just outside the room. All make promises to go home to their families at night. Unfortunately, in this line of work, that is not always possible. Securing weapons before entering an interview room is vital. If all weapons are properly secured outside the interview room, they are not available to an interviewee inside the room. Additionally, before putting an interviewee in a closed area within a law enforcement building, the interviewee should be patted down for anything that could do harm to anyone within the interview room area. Entering the interview room with an interviewee is no different than entering a squad car with a subject. Proper safety measures and constant vigilance are essential to avoid tragedy.
As a good rule of thumb for officer safety—and regardless of its location—the interview room should be designed and equipped as if it were contained inside a jail or correctional facility. There are many national, state, and local provisions specifying design and practical considerations for correctional settings. One should always consult these resources before making final design decisions for an interview room. ♦
For more information on the NIJ-funded Video Standards for Law Enforcement Applications project, contact Mike Fergus at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please cite as:
Robert K. Gill and Ernie Van Der Leest, “Interview Rooms: Design for Safety and Utility, ” Officer Safety Corner, The Police Chief 80 (November 2013): 10–11.