Steve Chapman

It would learn a lot from asking them and even more from trying what they've tried. When cops start taping all confessions and interrogations, they suddenly discover that recording devices are their best friends.

Chicago lawyer Thomas Sullivan, a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, has with his colleagues queried more than 800 U.S. law enforcement personnel in departments that routinely tape custodial interviews. Of those departments, Sullivan wrote in a 2008 article in the American Criminal Law Review, "not a single one has expressed a wish to return to non-recorded custodial interviews."

Why is that? Recording the process frees cops from scribbling notes, letting them focus on how the suspect handles himself. Reviewing the tape, they sometimes notice things they missed the first time.

The recording relieves police of having to recall events that may be years old by the time they take the stand. They no longer endure grilling from defense lawyers about whether they gave Miranda warnings or coerced suspects. When a jury gets to see a criminal calmly recounting his crime, a conviction usually ensues.

Here's something else that may interest the FBI: Cops, Sullivan writes, report that "most suspects pay no attention to the recording equipment once the interview begins."

There are other benefits, too. Those being questioned gain protection against police abuse. Judges no longer waste time trying to figure out if statements were given voluntarily. Guilty pleas are more likely, saving taxpayers the expense of trials and appeals.

Law enforcement investigations are supposed to aim at uncovering relevant facts, which can be captured vividly in recordings. The FBI and the Justice Department would benefit from showing that given a choice between more truth and less, they prefer more.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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