Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philly police to adopt sweeping interrogation reforms come Jan. 1

Critics say reforms were a long time coming. Some detectives, though, say they'll make their job harder.

"We're trying to put the department in a position where, whether we're talking about interrogations or any other aspects of an investigation, if there's a better way of doing things, then we ought to be doing it," Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said. (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer/File)
"We're trying to put the department in a position where, whether we're talking about interrogations or any other aspects of an investigation, if there's a better way of doing things, then we ought to be doing it," Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said. (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer/File)Read more

THIS ISN'T YOUR AVERAGE New Year's resolution.

Come Jan. 1, the Philadelphia Police Department will implement a sweeping new interview policy that's aimed at protecting the rights of people who are questioned by detectives - and eliminating instances of investigators being accused of coercing confessions from suspects.

A separate initiative, to be rolled out at a later date, will require interrogations in the Homicide Unit to be video-recorded - years after the practice became common in police departments across the country.

The new policies, which critics say are long overdue, are the product of a lengthy collaboration among the department's top brass, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.

"We're trying to put the department in a position where, whether we're talking about interrogations or any other aspects of an investigation, if there's a better way of doing things, then we ought to be doing it," Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey told the Daily News last week.

Provisions in the new policy include requirements that detectives get a supervisor's approval to hold suspects for more than 12 hours, but refrain from holding them for more than 36 hours. Another provision is that investigators inform witnesses, victims and even potential suspects brought in for interviews that they may leave at any time.

Physical violence, or threats to suspects of any kind, are strictly prohibited.

Another portion of the policy, meanwhile, will change the way detectives present photo lineups to victims and potential witnesses.

The goal, Ramsey said, is to make sure the right people end up behind bars.

Some of the rules seem self-evident, but the department has lacked a clear, written directive on these matters for years, said Capt. Francis Healy, the department's lawyer.

Ramsey assigned Healy to craft the new policy after members of the ACLU and the Innocence Project reached out to the department more than a year ago.

"They had some issues, some cases they were concerned about," he said. "Rather than dropping a lawsuit on us, they worked with us on this."

Healy said he worked on at least 30 drafts of the policy, incorporating pointers from the ACLU and the Innocence Project, along with practices used by other big-city police departments.

Black eyes

You don't have to dig deep to find the kinds of issues that troubled the ACLU and the Innocence Project.

Last month, the Daily News reported on several homicide cases that came unglued in court.

One involved a local man named Nafis Pinkney, charged in 2009 with committing two slayings in Cobbs Creek. He claimed that detectives Ohmarr Jenkins and James Pitts slapped him around until he signed a confession.

Pinkney was found not guilty in October.

Unique Drayton, meanwhile, was charged in the killing of her roommate in Overbrook in 2009, but the case was later dropped after a Common Pleas judge suppressed the confession that Drayton gave to the same two detectives, because she had been held in police custody for 41 hours.

"Philadelphia has always been one of the trouble spots for interrogation," said Richard Leo, a professor of law at the University of San Francisco and expert on confessions and interrogations.

"I interviewed Unique Drayton. She described horrible things - being made to sleep on the floor, not being fed, being screamed at and locked in handcuffs," he said.

"It's a horrible allegation to have in 2012 or 2013," he continued. "That sort of physical and psychological coercion passed in the 1930s and '40s in most other places."

Video recordings of interrogations could be an easy way to cut down on instances of detectives being accused of coercing confessions.

Ramsey said the department finally has enough funding to start recording interrogations in the Homicide Unit. Ultimately, he wants the practice to spread to every detective division in the city.

The commissioner implemented the practice in Washington, D.C., when he was the police chief there.

"Initially, it was on the controversial side, but detectives embraced it after a while," Ramsey said. "If I've got you on the tape right there, it nullifies any allegations that come up a year or two down the road."

Leo said hundreds of police departments across the country rely on recording interrogations, and at least 17 states require the practice by law.

One veteran Philly detective, who didn't want to be named, said he welcomed the use of video recording. "It'll show people exactly how [suspects] are in the room with us. They're cunning," he said. "They act a certain way with us, and then try to play the victim role when they get on the witness stand."

Healy said the department is working with the District Attorney's Office to iron out the specifics of what the video-recording policy will entail.

A better approach

Marissa Boyers Bluestine, the legal director for the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, said she requested a meeting with Ramsey about two years ago to talk about eyewitness identifications and photo lineups.

A growing body of research had shown that inaccurate identifications were much more likely to happen when witnesses were shown multiple photos of potential suspects at once.

"It's not supposed to be multiple choice. If a witness is saying, 'It could be No. 2, it could be No. 4,' well, that's not recognition," Bluestine said.

Her hope was that the Police Department would consider switching to individual photo presentations, with an important caveat: The photos could be shown only by a detective who wasn't working the case, and the witness had to be told that the culprit might not be in the mix so the witness wouldn't be inadvertently swayed.

Ramsey invited the Innocence Project to put together a seminar for the department's commanding officers on the need for "blind" sequential photo lineups. The response, Bluestine said, was overwhelmingly positive.

"This is the largest police department in the country to voluntarily take this on," she said. "It's a credit to the commissioner, and how open he is to talk about reforms."

'Part of the job'

Several investigators who spoke with the Daily News said they were on board with the change to the photo presentations.

They were worried, however, about the portion of the new interview and interrogation policy that emphasizes reminding witnesses, victims and potential suspects who are brought in for questioning that they're free to leave at any time.

"We have a hard enough time as it is getting people to come in and talk to us," said one investigator, who didn't want his name used. "If we start off by saying, 'By the way, there's the door,' people are going to take off."

Said another police source, who asked that his identity be withheld: "The people who made this directive have never been in a room with a murderer or a rapist. They don't come knocking on our door to confess. You have to talk them into it, and that takes time."

Donald Tibbs, an associate law professor at Drexel University, said average citizens aren't aware they can discontinue an interview - especially if it's being conducted at a police station.

"Most people don't feel comfortable enough to get up and leave," Tibbs said. "They presume they're not able to do so, even if they're not under arrest."

Another point of concern for detectives: a provision stressing that victims and witnesses can refuse to be taken from crime scenes to detective divisions to be questioned. The cop who encountered the person would instead need only to make a note of the encounter in his records.

"You have to get to people when the crime is still shocking to them, when they're still angry and upset," said another detective. "If a cop says, 'Oh, you don't have to come in, just sign the bottom of this [report],' then we'll have nothing to work with. The clearance rates are going to start to drop across the department."

But Jerry Ratcliffe, chairman of Temple University's Department of Criminal Justice, said police in the United Kingdom have maintained high homicide clearance rates despite similar restricted access to victims, witnesses and suspects.

"In England and Wales, the police are not able to detain witnesses at all. There are very strict limits on the length of time that you can hold a suspect and interview them," he said.

"When something becomes new, everybody complains about it," said Ratcliffe, a former London police officer. "But if you come back in five or 10 years, it just becomes part of the job."