Videotaping has aided and complicated police work

On the same day the Allegheny County district attorney applauded Pittsburgh police for beginning to videotape some suspect interviews, he also announced that he will give the force refresher training on when citizens may videotape them.

Stephen A. Zappala Jr. offered his remarks during a wide-ranging news conference Monday morning that he said addressed multiple issues relating to "police integrity."

The announcements came while his office prepares a high-profile case in the shooting death of a man along a popular stretch of Forbes Avenue in Oakland and after incidents in which police officers -- in some cases incorrectly -- tried to prevent citizens from taking videos of them in public places.

The increasing ease with which people can cheaply and quickly record audio and video, he and others have said, has aided in some aspects of police work and complicated others.

Videotaping interviews

On Feb. 15, 2013, Pittsburgh Police Bureau supervisors received a memo from the DA's office instructing them to begin videotaping interviews in homicide and sex assault cases.

Detectives conducted their first video interview on March 17. So far, the bureau has videotaped seven interviews -- all connected to homicide cases. "It could be a witness. It could be a person of interest. It could be a suspect/actor," police spokeswoman Diane Richard said.

The decision about whether to videotape an interview relies on whether the person being questioned consents to it, acting assistant chief of administration Thomas Stangrecki said.

"You would consider it in all cases, but as long as the person is willing to go on audio and/or video, then we would do it," he said.

Mr. Zappala said prosecutors enjoy the tactic because it allows the jurors and judge to see more context of an interview, rather than having someone describe to them a person's demeanor during questions.

"From a trial perspective, it eliminates suppression issues," he said. "It leads to guilty pleas and people can move on with their lives. It also eliminates appeals."

University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris said the use of videotaped interviews varies widely across the United States, with some agencies resisting the idea and others, such those in Minnesota, videotaping almost all interviews under state law.

"This is a major issue, I think, for all police departments and it is among the more interesting questions faced by law enforcement," he said.

In some cases, he said, people have raised questions about whether the positioning of the camera might cause a judge or jury to view a defendant in a certain light. If some interviews are taped and others are not, Mr. Harris said, some defense attorneys might raise questions about why that discrepancy occurred.

Citizens videotaping officers

Several local officers have recently found themselves in the reverse situation -- with citizens taping them.

In some instances, the video supports an officer's decision to arrest the citizen. But in others, it has raised questions.

Detectives in the DA's office used cell phone footage taken by a passenger in a car while they prepared their case against an Allegheny County police officer who was arrested in connection with several road rage incidents.

The DA's office dropped the charges against a North Side teacher who was arrested in Homewood after he argued with a Pittsburgh police officer about the speed at which the officer was driving by.

Mr. Zappala said his office plans to send people to roll call at each police shift to remind officers about when people have the right to videotape them.

Acting police Chief Regina McDonald said, "We welcome any training that the district attorney has to offer. It's nothing unusual." She said officers received similar training in preparation for the G-20 Summit.

Mr. Zappala said the training will reinforce sample guidelines composed by local police chiefs organizations: Do not try to prevent someone from taking photos or videos based solely on their presence in a public spot. Do not seize or demand a person's camera based solely on their presence. Do not demand to review, manipulate or erase images based solely on someone's presence.

Mr. Zappala said his office will review incidents case-by-case and emphasized that citizens do not have the right to antagonize an officer.

The new training, he said, is designed to ensure that "every police officer in this county understands we're talking about people's constitutional rights."


Liz Navratil:, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil. First Published August 20, 2013 4:00 AM


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