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For the record: Law requires officers to tape interviews with suspected felons

A new state law that says police should record interviews with anyone arrested for a serious crime means more cost and more work, but Pierce and St. Croix county officers agree it's not all bad.

"If we have it on tape, it's right out there for everybody to see," said St. Croix County Sheriff Dennis Hillstead. "It makes us better at our job and it can help eliminate those cases... where the defense is claiming there was coercion or there were promises made."

"I love the idea to be honest with you," said Pierce County District Attorney John O'Boyle, who has pushed county investigators to videotape interviews that can be shown in court.

"It plays out literally on the big screen," said O'Boyle. "You can show the jury this is what was said, this is the body language and the body language sometimes speaks volumes."

The new law that went into effect this month still allows unrecorded comments of adult suspects to be used in court. But in felony trials, the judge has to tell the jury that standard state policy wasn't followed. Over a year ago, the Supreme Court ruled that interviews of juveniles can't be allowed as court evidence if they're not recorded.

Both Pierce and St. Croix counties have been preparing for the new requirements.

Hillstead said that in the fall of 2005 his department got digital recorders for each of its 26 patrol deputies and eight investigators.

His office has two interview rooms equipped to do both voice and visual recordings. A room in the jail is also being converted for full recording.

"It was fairly expensive," said Hillstead. The hand-held recorders and software to download and send recordings for transcription cost about $18,000.

St. Croix County got a $35,000 grant to remodel and equip interrogation rooms.

"We had a pretty good jump on this," said Pierce County Sheriff's Department Lt. Dennis Sorenson.

In the late 1990s the department moved into videotaping interviews with victims of child abuse,

In late 2004 the department completed work on two interview rooms set up to record both video and audio. One room is a standard interview room furnished only with a table and chairs. The other, intended for use with children, looks more like a playroom.

Three years ago Pierce County bought digital hand-held recorders for patrol officers to use in the field.

The intent was to record data to help deputies with their paperwork, but they learned the recorders were useful when questioning witnesses and suspects.

"They're of such good quality they can use them to record their interviews too," said Sorenson. The recorders are downloaded to a computer and CDs are burned.

But Pierce County doesn't have enough of the hand-held recorders for all its deputies.

It has applied for a $5,000 grant from the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance to buy more recorders and to replace an outdated computer for downloading.

"Hopefully the grant's going to come through because we have no money to buy anything," said Sorenson.

"We're probably only a few years away from it being every interview has to be recorded," predicted Hillstead. Currently officers aren't required to record interviews with misdemeanor suspects.

St. Croix officers download their recorders regularly. The data is then available for a transcriptionist to type out when she has time.

Hillstead said his department has one full-time worker and a half-time worker doing transcriptions now. Within a couple of years he wants to add another two.

At that point, the transcriptionists would also take over the work of typing up reports recorded by deputies. Hillstead estimates it would take a deputy about 15 minutes to voice record a report that it now takes the officer an hour to type. Having clerical workers type the reports would give officers more time on the road, said the sheriff.

Pierce County doesn't transcribe interviews. Instead investigators or deputies burn either CDs or DVDs of the interview for the DA and the defense attorney.

"That's time consuming," said Sorenson.

He said the taping requirement sometimes intimidates deputies, and he admits he had similar doubts at first.

"It used to be an officer's word was good enough," said Sorenson. He said some officers feel the requirement implies some suspicion of their actions.

"It's a little scary -- putting everything down on tape," said Sorenson. "They're afraid they're going to make a mistake, and the whole world's going to know about it, specifically the defense attorney."

But, said Sorenson, he has come to believe that taping bolsters an officer's credibility.

By catching emotions, mannerisms and demeanor, a videotape leaves no room for interpretation, he said.

"Those things, I think, are important for a district attorney to see and even for a jury to see," said Sorenson.