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Digital Interrogations

The Lawrence, Kan., Police Department recently upgraded to a live digital video system to record and store interviews and interrogations.

The adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is true in many fields. But it’s especially true in law enforcement, where effective video recording of interrogations is an essential tool in police work. That’s why the Lawrence, Kan., Police Department combined four tech-savvy law enforcement officials, an encouraging upper management team and a budget of $12,232 to create an integrated, compartmentalized live digital video recording and storage system for nine interview rooms in two separate police buildings.

StateTech spoke with the police officers and detectives involved in this implementation to get the scoop on how it was put together, the reasons behind their choice of technology and how video recording fits into the wider legal context of police interviews.

With an estimated population of 89,176, the city of Lawrence is the fifth-largest metropolitan area in Kansas. In 2005, the Lawrence Police Department responded to 109,358 calls for service. The LPD has 170 employees, 138 of whom are sworn law enforcement agents.

Detective M.T. Brown, who has been with the LPD for about 15 years, has conducted hundreds of interviews with victims, witnesses and suspects, recording key statements on a cumbersome VHS tape system. The system allowed just one statement to be recorded at a time and required manual changing of VCR inputs, depending on which interview room was being used.

By 2003, however, the LPD’s upper management was being pressured by the district attorney’s office to record interviews with suspects, witnesses and victims in their entirety. In response, management assigned Brown to research and implement an affordable, reliable solution.

“We didn’t think a VHS-type system would work for recording interviews in their entirety,” Brown recalls. “We researched other departments that had gone with contractor-installed systems. We didn’t particularly care for those, because a lot of them were expensive and proprietary, and they didn’t work across different platforms and technologies.”

Brown and his brother Dean, who is also a detective with the LPD, called in tech-savvy police officers Jim Welsh and Bill Cory, who have been with the LPD for five and eight years, respectively. The team began researching how they could move to a digital video recording system.

In addition, Sgt. Tarik Khatib helped research how other area departments were recording the interviews. He and Sgt. Mike Pattrick met with the district attorney’s office and the Administrative Judge of the county to work out the logistics of how many copies of the recordings were needed, the types of reports needed, and the use of recorded interviews in hearings and trials.

MAKING A LIST

The LPD wanted a cost-saving solution, but there were other, more complicated requirements in play. The team members wanted a system that was user-friendly enough for all police officers and detectives to use. They also wanted a compartmentalized system so that any single element that failed could be replaced at a low cost. In addition, they needed to know that the recorded video would be safely stored in the event of a power outage. Finally, they wanted a solution that would allow live viewing of interviews on desktop PCs from outside the interrogation room.

“The technical abilities of the people who work here vary widely,” says Welsh. “Some are very technology literate, and some don’t know how to set the timer on their VCR. We didn’t want to invest in complicated computer equipment that would intimidate some of our officers, so we decided to go with a standalone system and began evaluating those.”

With the approval and encouragement of the LPD senior staff, including Chief of Police W. Ronald Olin, Captains Daniel Affalter and David Cobb, and Sergeants Pattrick and Paul Fellers, the team started testing recorders that burn DVDs in real time. However, they found that power spikes or outages could make the recorded video unrecoverable and that some of their officers were struggling with DVD finalizing procedures.

“You had to interrupt the flow of the interview to excuse yourself and change the disk,” explains Cory. “You never know if an interview is going to be 15 minutes or 15 hours, and you don’t want to mess up the flow. You want to be able to just go with it until it’s done.”

Team members started investigating systems that burn video directly to a hard drive. After testing six different kinds of DVD recorders, they eventually decided to go with the Panasonic DMR-E500H, which comes with a 400 gigabyte hard drive and can hold more than 700 hours of continuous audio and video.

“We liked this machine because the officer doesn’t have to change a tape or worry about a DVD,” says Brown. “In fact, the officer doesn’t have to do anything except push ‘record’ and then, at the end of the interview, use a high-speed burn application that can burn three hours of video in about 15 minutes.”

Every system component was bought off the shelf. After successful testing, the team implemented the system in nine interview rooms in two buildings for a total cost of $12,232.

The team connected the Panasonic recorder to a camera and a Samsung monitor in each interview room using simple, standard connectors and mounted wall plates. Time-stamped video and audio feeds are then carried from each DVD recorder to its own video server, which is located in the same room.

The LPD saved money by retaining their existing analog cameras for use with the new digital system, a move Brown advises other police departments to consider. “In most cases, you don’t have to have a digital camera to record the signal digitally,” he says. “If [police] departments took the time to research their system, they’d find that it works with the digital system that we put together.”

The only externally contracted element of the system was some in-wall wiring, for a total cost of $1,000. This gives the interview rooms a clean, wire-free appearance, making them more comfortable and less intimidating for both police officers and witnesses.

“We do almost everything here ourselves with the help of our IT department,” says Welsh, who took the lead on the rest of the installation and wiring with Cory.

Training was also straightforward: One hour of instruction was sufficient to get officers familiar with the system. And a simple laminated help sheet in each interview room provides officers with a numbered guide to the most common recording tasks.

REAPING THE REWARDS

“Now all interviews are recorded in full and in real time,” says Brown, “and burning a DVD is as easy as clicking a button when you’re done with your interview. Plus, if you need several copies, you can make them direct from the hard drive.”

Cory adds that, since they started recording interviews in their entirety, officers are not being brought into court as much as they used to be. This frees them up to do more police work and saves the department money. Brown says other agencies have resources dedicated to burning and managing DVDs and estimates that his department may have saved at least one $30,000-to-$40,000 staff position by employing this solution.

The video servers are having a big impact on the department’s investigative work, says Welsh, because they allow real-time viewing of multiple interviews from a remote location. This means that, if contradictory information is being given by a pair of suspects, for example, officers sitting at their PCs can alert the interviewing officers to these discrepancies in real time.

Recording complete interviews also provides an extra layer of protection for police officers. In the past, Brown explains, “Officers were accused of lying, or the voluntary nature of the statement would be called into question. About the only thing a suspect can hope for is to get the confession thrown out.

“The new system has really impacted that because, if the suspect makes allegations against any officers, [the interrogations] can easily be seen by a judge and jury. Now juries can see the person’s demeanor, how they were acting that night and all the little things that you don’t get from a piece of paper.”

Recording interviews in their entirety has created a little more work for the district attorney’s office, however. Since not everything said in an interview is admissible in court — such as references to previous crimes — the district attorney’s office now has to edit this information out of video interviews before going to court.

On the other hand, the system has reduced departmental paperwork, since officers can write a synopsis of the interview, secure in the knowledge that the interview itself has been safely recorded and saved. However, if the case goes to trial, officers must watch the video interview again and take copious notes.

“Since we’ve started this [system], officers have used it without a second thought,” says Welsh. “We can ship a DVD to any other office that has a DVD player, and we don’t have to worry at all about proprietary issues.”

“We put the system together through trial and error and research,” adds Brown. “But it has been in operation for over a year now, and we’ve had very little trouble with it.”

Brown, a member of the Forensic Video Association, says members from other police departments are expressing an interest in the LPD’s system. Some have even visited his office to see the technology in operation — true testimony to the success of this technology implementation.

CASE CLOSED

Benefits offered by the Lawrence Police Department’s off-the-shelf digital video recording interrogation system include:

• Cost-effective process

• User-friendly operation

• Compartmentalized system (if a component fails, it can be individually replaced at a low cost)

• Effective backup and disaster recovery

• Remote interrogation viewing (from computers located throughout the department)

Oct 31 2006

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