WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department announced Thursday that federal law enforcement officials will be required to record interviews with suspects on video in most instances, reversing a long-standing policy that forbids the practice.
The directive applies to the FBI; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Drug Enforcement Administration; and the U.S. Marshals Service. The policy, to take effect in July, also encourages officials to use electronic recording in other facets of their investigations, such as witness interviews.
"Creating an electronic record will ensure that we have an objective account of key investigations and interactions with people who are held in federal custody," Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a video posted on the department's website. "It will allow us to document that detained individuals are afforded their constitutionally protected rights."
Mr. Holder said the new practice would provide law enforcement officials "with a backstop, so that they have clear and indisputable records of important statements and confessions made by individuals who have been detained."
In a memo dated May 12, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said the video recording could occur between the time a suspect has been apprehended and his or her first appearance before a judge. When law enforcement officials do not have a video recorder, they will be permitted to use an audio recorder, the memo said. If suspects ask that they not be recorded, officials are supposed to comply with the request.
In national security cases, when officials are interviewing someone in an attempt to learn about something endangering the public, "there is no presumption of electronic recording," according to the memo, which was first disclosed by The Arizona Republic.
Under former President George W. Bush's administration, a U.S. attorney in Arizona was dismissed after months of protesting the FBI policy that forbade recording of confessions. The U.S. attorney, Paul K. Charlton, said the policy had led to acquittals of two defendants in violent crime cases. Despite confessions, the government had no videos to show to the jury.
"Federal agents and prosecutors throughout the nation are firmly committed to due process in their rigorous and evenhanded enforcement of the law," Mr. Holder said. "This new recording policy not only reaffirms our steadfast commitment to these ideals -- it will provide verifiable evidence that our words are matched by our deeds."
The FBI had such a non-recording policy because its officials believed then that making video or audio recordings would discourage suspects from talking. Officials also feared that the practice would expose juries to interrogation methods that might cast the department in an unfavorable light.