The Straits Times says

Using police cameras judiciously

The plan of law enforcement agencies to test the feasibility of video recordings of suspect interviews should prompt a broad review of the considerations that matter when balancing the needs of criminal justice and crime prevention. The process should start by probing assumptions that video tapes are indeed superior to audio recordings and transcripts of statements made to the police. That, of course, begs the question: Superior for what purpose - ensuring fair play or securing convictions?

In crime-ridden times, particularly when organised criminal groups run amok, the police would be expected to do all that's necessary to restore order and bring criminals to book. Even when a safer environment prevails, police questioning of suspects remains an essential tool to get to the bottom of crimes that surface. However, there has been a movement in many places over past decades to ensure statements are extracted voluntarily - in the belief that the "possibility of unfair and even brutal police tactics poses a real and serious threat to civilised notions of justice", as noted in the judgment of the celebrated 1966 Miranda case in the United States.

That case spawned certain rules that have been adapted by various jurisdictions and invoked by defendants challenging statements made while in police custody and under interrogation. The expectation is that video recordings can offer a more reliable means of testing claims of unfairness. What research elsewhere has shown is that various issues, like the camera's perspective, must be taken into account, too. For example, when the camera is focused solely on the suspect (rather than an equal focus on the suspect and questioner), even judges are susceptible to the view that incriminating statements are voluntarily made and likely to be true.

The pilot programme envisaged here involves a limited set of offences and allows for "an assessment of the impact on investigations, its effectiveness in different situations and the resources required", according to the Home Affairs Ministry. Practical issues ought to be addressed, of course, like proper training in the use of technology and interview techniques that can elicit relevant information to untangle a web of events. At the same time, a project to gather video evidence ought to review considerations of fairness, like whether its persuasive effect applies equally to all suspects regardless of their social and economic status.

Determining what type of investigations warrant video recordings and when suspects can either decline or request these are also matters that should be discussed with other stakeholders like criminal lawyers and social advocates. Ultimately, of course, what matters is an examination of the totality of the circumstances related to statements recorded, including the behaviour of both sides off camera as well.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2015, with the headline 'Using police cameras judiciously'. Print Edition | Subscribe