Tiny progress in interrogations

The National Police Agency announced last week that police investigators electronically recorded the entire interrogation process in 33 cases in fiscal 2013. This is the first time that police interrogation of criminal suspects has been electronically recorded in its entirety and in that sense represents progress. The police must make serious efforts to expand the scope of such recordings to enhance the transparency of their interrogation process. Doing so will help avoid false confessions and make their cases more credible.

Of the 33 cases, 29 were cases subject to lay judge trials in which ordinary citizens sit with professional judges. The remaining four were cases in which suspects were mentally handicapped.

Serious crimes including murder, burglary resulting in death, arson and rape are handled in lay judge trials. In fiscal 2013, the police dealt with 3,315 crimes to be handled by lay judge trials. This means that the police interrogation process was electronically recorded in its entirety in only 0.87 percent of the cases for lay judge trials.

Full recordings were carried out by police in eight prefectures, including eight cases in Aichi, five in Chiba, four each in Hyogo and Tottori, and three in Yamaguchi.

In contrast, the entire interrogation process was electronically recorded in 75.4 percent of all the cases handled by public prosecutors. There are, of course, differences in how police investigators and public prosecutors build their cases.

Police investigators must start from scratch, while public prosecutors deal with suspects after the case against them have been established by the police (except in cases where the prosecution’s special squad builds its own case). Still, the number of cases in which police recorded the entire interrogation process is too small.

According to the NPA, police officers across the country in fiscal 2013 — either fully or partially — recorded the interrogation of suspects in 3,105 cases to be handled by lay judge trials, or 93.7 percent of such cases.

A poll taken by the NPA of police investigators in fiscal 2013 shows that they are ambivalent toward electronically recording interrogations. In the poll, which covered 2,778 investigators who took part in interrogations that were recorded fully or partially, 91.2 percent said the procedure was either greatly effective or effective to some extent.

But only 5.4 percent said that some form of electronic recording should be made mandatory, while 88.6 percent were against making such recordings obligatory. In addition, 49.8 percent expressed opposition to the idea of recording the entire interrogation process.

While some investigators think that electronic recording helps to prove that suspects have given testimony voluntarily, others — especially veteran investigators — say electronic recordings make it difficult for them to build trustful relationships with suspects and to elicit meaningful testimony.

Opponents also pointed out that electronic recordings of testimony may infringe on privacy or harm the honor of crime victims, especially in sex crimes.

So far, the police and prosecutors are under no legal obligation to electronically record the interrogation process, but they have partially started doing so after they came under severe criticism for a series of cases in which false charges were filed based on confessions and testimonies wrongfully obtained in interrogations behind closed doors.

The Justice Ministry plans to submit a bill to the Diet next year that will make it obligatory for the police and prosecutors to electronically record the entire interrogation process in all criminal cases subject to lay judge trials.

Each prefectural police department should strive to educate investigators toward changing their mindset and train them to develop interrogation techniques that are effective under such circumstances.

Police authorities should not forget that recording the entire interrogation process helps to prevent the filing of false charges and that courts may question the trustworthiness of testimony if interrogations have not been electronically recorded. The police should know that the planned legislation is the first step toward making mandatory the electronic recording of interrogations in their entirety for all crimes.