By James Schnabl, Commander, Santa Ana, California, Police Department
onsider this: Officers respond to a call of domestic violence in progress. They arrive to hear a woman’s screams of pain and anguish emanating from somewhere in the back of the house. They hear a male voice in a hushed tone whisper, “Shut up.” The officers enter but proceed cautiously toward the back of the house. They know this is potentially one of the most dangerous calls they will answer as police officers.
Turning the corner, they see a man at the foot of the bed, pacing back and forth, obviously angry. A woman sits on the floor at his feet with her face in her hands sobbing uncontrollably. The officers announce their presence and detain the angry man for their own safety. After removing him from the bedroom, they return to interview the sobbing woman still on the floor. They listen to her story of an intoxicated, jealous husband. She arrived home from work this evening to a barrage of questions about her friendship with a coworker. Unable to answer the questions to his satisfaction, he slapped her three maybe four times in the face and then pushed her to the ground. She was surprised to see the police arrive; she did not call for help. She was happy the abuse would stop in the interim but knew the police would not be the long-term solution. This was not the first time she had been through this process.
In the incident described above, as always, the responding patrol officers interview the victim and any witnesses, later transferring their notes into a written police report documenting the circumstances of the incident. The written police report continues to be the means of documenting criminal events used by law enforcement. Although the first responder rarely video records the initial interviews, detectives commonly conduct video interviews of victims, witnesses, and suspects before summarizing the interviews in a written police report. The process used by detectives is the most accurate method available for collecting and presenting the factual circumstances of an investigation, but there is still much room for improvement. It is hard to overstate the impact that seeing the actual interview will have on juries.
Viewing video interviews, jurors are able to make credibility assessments of the victims, witnesses, and suspects through their own observations rather than through the recollections of witnesses via oral testimony in court. Video recording interviews of suspects is commonplace, and in many jurisdictions is a requirement; yet, it is not common police procedure to video record initial interviews of victims and witnesses. Video recording technology has progressed to the point where it is practical for officers to carry a personal video camera. Once officers have a personal video camera, the next step should be using the video as the police report instead of or in supplement to documenting events in a written format.
Problems with Written Police Reports
Currently, once the officer determines the situation warrants a report, he or she will gather and note the information necessary including observations and other statements or circumstances deemed to be important.These facts will be summarized in written form for use in a variety of different ways.
The first problem associated with this process is the officer’s biases. Psychological studies demonstrate that, thanks to life experiences, information received is filtered to conform to our preconceived understandings of how that information fits with information we have previously received and encoded. Confirmation bias is a subconscious process by which the decision maker accepts information that confirms an established hypothesis and rejects or modifies information not consistent with the hypothesis. Officers are highly motivated to solve criminal cases, which could exacerbate any bias.1 Through training, some of these issues can be addressed, but to what extent the instruction will change behavior varies from officer to officer. Some research also demonstrates that an officer’s perception of a situation varies based on experience level.2
The second problem with written police reports is the loss of information between the first-person account of a victim or a witness and the officer’s efforts to convert the information into a written police report. Although the officer is trained to take notes to assist in preparing a police report, the officer faces challenges in capturing the entire content of the interview. Confirmation bias, where the officer may subconsciously focus on information consistent with a hypothesis of the event (even to the point of excluding or ignoring inconsistent information) also plays a role in this process as well. The subconscious bias introduced at this stage of the criminal investigation could carry forward as the detective assigned to the case adopts the officer’s hypothesis.3 Further, the longer an officer waits to write the report, the more details of the incident will be lost.
The third problem written police reports have is time. A written police report takes a significant amount of time to prepare, which is why officers frequently wait until at least the end of the investigation and often until the end of a shift to write reports. Depending on the complexity of the investigation, the written report can be many pages long and even then the report can be lacking in a number of important details. The written police report continues to be the standard because a more efficient process has not been developed.
The fourth problem is victim or witness recollection and credibility, which can be hugely important to the investigation and the prosecution. When a criminal case finally reaches trial, many months to several years may have passed. Witness recollections of events may have diminished or been tainted by interactions with other witnesses or even the media. Seeing the video interview, which was conducted immediately after the crime, will allow juries the opportunity to view and evaluate the credibility of a victim or a witness in the same way the officer did.
Many of these problems can be reduced or completely resolved by the transition to video police reporting. The officer would arrive at the scene armed with a wearable video camera. The officer could conduct interviews at the scene, capturing the emotion and the state of mind of the involved parties for later legal proceedings. With a first responder video interview, more information is captured and less is lost to time-related memory degradation or the influence of outside sources. At the conclusion of the investigation, the officer video records the investigation and associated conclusions. A one-paragraph written synopsis also may be needed to provide additional information to help the reader decide whether the video is relevant for viewing. Video statements needed in writing at a later date can be transcribed by clerical staff or by contract vendors already being used by some police agencies. At some point in the future, it is hoped that computer speech to text technology will evolve to allow the video to be processed by a computer to produce a written transcription.
Since the beginning of police reporting, the standard method of capturing police activity such as crime, traffic, and information reports has been the handwritten police report. Eventually, computers became more prevalent to produce these reports, but they are still written documents created from a combination of notes and memory. With the exception of major crime scenes, what is often missing from this process is a thorough documentation of what the scene looked like, the demeanor of the victim, the responsiveness of the witnesses, and other critical information in the search for truth and justice.
Advantages of Video
Bugden and Isaacson make a compelling case for the requirement that all suspect confessions should be video recorded.4 Many of the arguments they make for recording suspect interviews are applicable to the case for video recording victim and witness statements by the first responding officers. The authors point out that there is an unspoken bias by judges to automatically give more weight and credibility to the police officer than to the accused. However, Justice Jackson in Johnson v. United States, 333 U.S. 10, 14 (1948), noted that the police do have both a bias and an investment “in the often competitive enterprise of ferreting out crime.” Since the police do have a stake in the outcome of a criminal arrest and prosecution, they frequently are not independent collectors of information.5 When the credibility of the officer and the defendant are in conflict, a video recording of the interrogation would resolve the discrepancies. In the absence of a video recording, the officer’s recollection and testimony are chosen over the different recollections of the defendant.
Bugden and Isaacson present two real-life scenarios with two different outcomes involving the competency of a defendant who confessed to committing a crime. The outcomes were entirely dependent on the presence of a video recording of the interrogation. In State v. Dutchie, 969 P.2d at 428 (Utah 1998), Benjamin Dutchie read at the third-grade level and had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, developmental expressive language disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and several other psychological disorders. A defense expert could not determine if Dutchie could understand the Miranda warning he was given. The court determined Dutchie gave a “reliable, trustworthy, and voluntary statement to the detective.” Since the interrogation was not video recorded, the court was not able to observe Dutchie’s interactions with the detectives to draw its own conclusions on the mental capacity of Dutchie.6
One year later, the court faced a similar situation in State v. Rettenberger, 1999 UT 80. Todd Rettenberger had attention deficit disorder, below average IQ, and several personality disorders. The two interrogations of eighteen-year-old Rettenberger were video recorded. Both the trial court and the Supreme Court were able to view the interrogation and make observations critical to assessing the suspect’s ability to understand what crime he was admitting to have committed. The detectives in the video-recorded interview made 36 false statements to the defendant. The Supreme Court reached the following conclusion: “The overwhelming majority of these misrepresentations were not merely ‘half-truths’ but were complete fabrications about testimonial and physical evidence of Rettenberger’s guilt. In sum, although the State, in fact, had no physical evidence implicating Rettenberger, the officer sought to convince Rettenberger that the State had an air-tight case against him.”
The court decided many of the issues of the case by quoting directly from the video-recorded statement of Rettenberger. In suppressing the incriminating statements made by Rettenberger, the court noted the availability of a video recording of the interview allowed the court to carefully analyze the objective events in the interrogation as well as the subjective characteristics of the defendant, which may have allowed him to be more easily manipulated by police into confessing.7
With so much at stake, how can we increase the likelihood that eyewitness testimony is the most accurate it can be? Research has indicated several major factors affect the memory of eyewitness statements including stress, fear, anxiety, and confusion. Victims are not the only ones subject to these memory-impacting stressors. Witnesses experience many of the same stressors as victims.8 Because a criminal investigation may rely on the testimony of a single witness, it is imperative the courts and juries have access to the most reliable information, which would include video statements taken immediately after a crime occurs. Repeated research studies have demonstrated memory is constantly being altered and reconstructed, increasing the importance of the first responder video-recorded interview.9 Additional research by Lindsay, Hagen, Read, Wade, and Garry indicates that memory of distant events are easily altered by outside influences or suggestions. 10 Researchers were able to convince 50 percent of study participants to falsely recall a ride in a hot air balloon as a child by showing them an altered photograph of their own face as a child riding in the hot air balloon.11
Other memory-related research revealed that one week following an event, both participants and observers had nearly the same recall of the event. However, twelve weeks after an event, participants were able to remember more than observers. Other studies have demonstrated observers closer in proximity to the event recall more than observers further away from the event.12 First-responder video-recorded interviews would memorialize victims’ and witnesses’ recollections of events before memories of the events begin to fade.
Investigative effectiveness relies on the officer’s ability to accurately gauge the reliability and the credibility of all eyewitnesses. This process must include consideration of the perceptions, the beliefs, and the cognitive abilities of the eyewitness before incorporating eyewitness testimony into the fabric of the investigation. Since the credibility of the witnesses is so critical to the direction of the investigation, the investigating officer should clearly state in his or her conclusions what weight the witnesses statements were given and why. Some of the factors involved in determining witness credibility are: demeanor, cognitive ability to observe, opportunity to perceive, character, bias, prior inconsistent statements, inherent plausibility, corroboration, ability to recollect, education and experience, and quantity of detail.13 With a video recording of the witness’ statement at the scene of the crime, juries are better able to make their own judgment on how much value to give the witness’ statement. Overall, a witness statement recorded immediately after the event, before memory can be corrupted by outside influences, will have significant probative value later in court.
Personal Video Cameras
Video camera technology is advancing at an incredible rate. In 1967, the first consumer portable video cameras, the Sony Rover Portapak, were introduced to the commercial market. The unit consisted of a handheld camera tethered to a portable reel-to-reel VTR (Video Tape Recorder). Eventually, video cassettes and smaller electronics lightened the camera and combined it into one unit. New formats of video providing different capabilities became available, giving the consumer even greater mobility and versatility to capture events on tape in varying lighting conditions. In the current era of digital video, recordings can be stored on a wide variety of digital media and transferred to computers or other storage devices for permanent retention.14
Law enforcement recognized the advantages of video recording and began to incorporate it into its standard operating procedures. Narcotics units purchased and installed covert cameras to monitor criminal activity. Interview rooms became equipped with covert cameras and recording equipment to document suspects’ statements. Police cars were outfitted with dash-mounted video cameras, which have also evolved from the larger VHS format to the far more manageable digital media. Video now is uploaded wirelessly to computer servers inside the police departments for retention and review.15 Crime scene investigators also have traded film cameras for the higher quality and lower cost of digital photography for crime scene photos.
The next step to incorporating video technology into law enforcement standard operating procedures is the development of the miniature personal video camera. Several companies are producing personal video cameras that can be worn by the officer for hands-free operation. British police have head-mounted video cameras to record crowds at sporting events and other high profile activities. According to Tony McNulty, the British Minister of State for Security “By providing dramatic footage of victims, suspects and witnesses, judges and jurors will be able to ‘see and hear the incident through the eyes and ears of the officer at the scene.’ ”16
Video-recorded interviews of domestic violence victims in Britain have been credited by prosecutors with encouraging them to press charges against their abuser. However, Ranjit Kaur, Director of Rights of Women, stated she is not convinced the video footage of the interview will be enough to obtain a conviction. The Association of Chief Police Officers, an independent group of senior police officials in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, expressed concern that courts may come to expect everything an officer does to have video-recorded evidence for support. “The introduction of personal digital recording for police officers and staff brings benefits and risk,” read an association statement. “We need to guard against creating an expectation that all police activity ought to be supported by the use of digital recording technology.”17
Police agencies will have to decide when and under what circumstances a patrol officer must use a personal video recorder. A 2002 study conducted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police revealed that 93 percent of citizen’s complaints were resolved in the officer’s favor because of the presence of an in-car video camera system.18
The use of a personal video recorder may initially increase the workload of a patrol officer until the technology matures to the point where it can operate effectively with little to no input from the user. Both Ben Ward of Human Rights Watch and Barry Steinhardt, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Technology and Liberty Program, expressed concern with the ubiquitous presence of video recording and the potential for abuse. However, Steinhardt acknowledged the potential of the video recording devices to prevent police misconduct because of the officers awareness their actions and statements are being recorded.19
Orange County Supervising Deputy District Attorney Rosanne Froeberg reviewed and commented on any potential problems associated with conducting video-recorded interviews of victims and witnesses at the crime scene. Overall, she was supportive of the idea and saw more advantages than disadvantages. Officers would need supplemental training on interview techniques. Because of the power of the video-recorded interview, defense attorneys would likely focus on the interview techniques of the investigating officer instead of the content of the interview. A particular area of concern for Froeberg was ensuring the interviewing officer asked open-ended questions and did not lead the victims or witnesses to desired responses. Any mistakes made by the investigating patrol officer would be subjected to intense scrutiny by defense attorneys. In the end, Froeberg believed the video recording of victims and witnesses at the scene will result in more complete and comprehensive investigations of criminal cases. The addition of video recording into responding officer’s standard procedures may result in more early court resolutions of criminal cases.
Replacing Written Police Reports
Consider the following scenario. In the personal video recorders as standard issue future, an officer performs an interview of a victim as well as a witness to the crime. The video interview is conducted with a small camera hung around the officer’s neck or worn like glasses and recorded directly onto the device. The officer retrieves a device from her uniform shirt pocket and uses the menu to select the desired crime script from a list of many of the most common incidents a police officer handles. The script allows the officer to ask the victim a series of questions prepared ahead of time by subject matter experts. This ensures the officer asks all of the relevant questions related to the crime under investigation. The officer still has the discretion to ask additional questions or clarifying questions but must cover the topics included on the script.
The scripts are critical components of video police reporting. With defense attorneys, district attorneys, and juries all viewing officers’ video interviews, it is critical the officers ask the victims and witnesses all of the necessary questions required for later prosecution. The development of the predesigned script for each crime type will ensure the officer asks all of the critical questions necessary to establish the elements and the venue of the crime.
The officer returns to the police department, where he records himself describing the investigation and his conclusions. The officer describes in the self-interview the process of dusting for fingerprints and swabbing the area for DNA. The video-recorded statements of the victim and the witness as well as the investigation by the officer are transmitted to a private contract service that specializes in creating transcripts from audio or video-recorded statements. Meanwhile, the officer creates the report face page that is turned into the Records Section of the PD , along with a DVD of the interviews and the investigation. The transcripts of the video-recorded statements are completed and returned to the officer within three to four hours for his review. The officer attaches these to the police report and submits the entire package to the detective bureau for follow-up or to court for filing. Using this procedure, the first-person interviews of the victims and witnesses are memorialized for later review in court. The officer has conducted a thorough investigation, but one that requires less time to complete than the current practice of completing a written police report.
Personal video recorders, carried by the first responders, will capture the scene and allow investigators, district attorneys, defense attorneys, judges and juries to view interviews of victims and witn esses and to assess their credibility. Criminal cases will not be reliant on the skills and memory of the investigating officer to adequately document the entire investigation.
With training, patrol officer’s investigations will become more thorough and complete. Criminal suspects will have more information available to them in courts, increasing the likelihood that the guilty will be convicted and the innocent will be exonerated. ♦
1Barbara O’Brien and Phoebe C. Ellsworth, “Confirmation Bias in Criminal Investigations” (Conference on Empirical Legal Studies. Austin, Texas, September 19, 2006).
2Randy Garner, “Police Attitudes: The Impact of Experience After Training,” Applied Psychology in Criminal Justice 1, no. 1 (2005): 56–70, http://www.apcj.org/documents/1_1_police.pdf (accessed July 19, 2012).
3O’Brien and Ellsworth, “Confirmation Bias in Criminal Investigations.”
4Walter F. Bugden Jr. and Tara L. Isaacson, “Crimes, Truth, and Videotape: Mandatory Recording of Interrogations at the Police Station,” Utah State Bar (blog), October 30, 2006, http://webster.utahbar.org/barjournal/2006/10/crimes_truth_and_videotape_man.html (accessed July 17, 2012).
8David P. Marsh and Martin S. Greenberg, “The Influence of Eyewitness Similarity to a Crime Victim and Victim Culpability on Eyewitness Recall,” Applied Psychology in Criminal Justice 2, no. 1 (2005): 43–56, dev.cjcenter.org/_files/apcj/2_1_eyewitness.pdf (accessed July 17, 2012).
9M. Amanda Earl Colby and Charles A. Weaver III, “Comparing Eyewitness Memory and Confidence for Actors and Observers in Product Identification Situations: Extending Findings and Methodology from Criminal Justice.” Applied Psychology in Criminal Justice 2, no. 2 (2006): 145–162, http://www.apcj.org/documents/2_2_witnessmemory.pdf (accessed July 20, 2012).
10D. Steven Lindsay, Lisa Hagen, J. Don Read, Kimberly A. Wade, and Maryanne Garry, “True Photographs and False Memories,” Psychological Science 15 (2004): 149-154, http://www.psychologicalscience.org/pdf/ps/photograph_false_memory.pdf (accessed July 19, 2012).
11Colby and Weaver, “Comparing Eyewitness Memory and Confidence.”
13IACP Training Key 597, “Assessing Witness Credibility.”
14Ronie Garrett, “Smile, You’re on VIDMIC,” Officer.com, June 1, 2008, http://www.officer.com/article/10248864/smile-youre-on-vidmic (accessed July 17, 2012).
15James Careless, “Video Evidence Equipment Sampler,” Law and Order Magazine (June 2008), http://www.hendonpub.com/resources/articlearchive/details.aspx?ID=206895 (accessed July 17, 2012).
16Associated Press, “Britain Straps Video Cameras to Police Helmets,” NBCNews.com, July 13, 2007, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/19750278/ (accessed July 17, 2012).
18U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, and the IACP, The Impact of Video Evidence on Modern Policing (December 1, 2004), http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/Publications/video_evidence.pdf (accessed July 17, 2012).
19Associated Press, “Britain Straps Video Cameras to Police Helmets.”
Please cite as:
James Schnabl, "Reinventing the Police Report for the 21st Century: Are Video Police Reports the Answer?" The Police Chief 79 (September 2012): 32–37.