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THE WATCHDOGS: Sea of new police videos could go unseen

Saturday, May 28, 2016
Chicago Tribune
by Frank Main

Fabio Valentini, chief of criminal prosecutions, with his boss, Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez. | Sun-Times file photo

Fabio Valentini, chief of criminal prosecutions, with his boss, Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez. | Sun-Times file photo

Police across Illinois will soon be required to record vastly more interrogations under a law intended to help ensure that confessions aren’t coerced and that the right people go to prison for committing violent crimes.

But will prosecutors have the time to view all of what’s expected to be an ocean of new interrogation videos before deciding whether to charge someone? Fabio Valentini, chief of criminal prosecutions for Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, doesn’t think so.


Starting Wednesday, under a law passed in 2013, police statewide must record all questioning of suspects in rapes, armed robberies and shootings. Those offenses will be added to a list of six other crimes — including murder — for which police already are required to record suspects’ statements.

The amount of video resulting from that could be overwhelming. Consider the city of Chicago alone. Last year, the Chicago Police Department arrested 246 people for murder and the other five crimes that required recording interrogations.

The crimes being added Wednesday could present Cook County prosecutors with at least 40 percent more Chicago cases in which videos are required, according to a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of 2015 arrest figures.

Prosecutors also will be asked to review additional videos from police agencies in more than 130 other municipalities in Cook County.

“It’s nearly impossible,” Valentini says when asked whether prosecutors will be able to review every recording before deciding whether to file criminal charges.

He says that with 48 hours to file charges against detained suspects or release them, prosecutors might not get the chance to even see some of the videos before having to make a decision on whether to approve charges.

“We will have to make charging decisions, then go back and review the videos and hope we don’t learn something new,” Valentini says.

The Chicago Police Department voluntarily began videotaping murder confessions in 1999 in response to allegations of coerced confessions in cases such as the 1998 killing of 11-year-old Ryan Harris, in which two boys were wrongly charged with murder.

In 2005, police across the state started recording all interrogations in murder cases under a law that was among the reforms put in place after former Gov. George Ryan declared Illinois’ capital punishment system to be “broken” and cleared Death Row.

In 2013, eight other violent crimes — predatory criminal sexual assault of a child, aggravated arson, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated vehicular hijacking, home invasion, aggravated criminal sexual assaults, armed robberies with a handgun and aggravated batteries with a handgun — were added to the list of offenses for which interrogations have to be recorded.

Over the past two years, the police have begun recording interrogations for the first five crimes on that list.

Starting Wednesday, they are also required to record interrogations for the other three: aggravated criminal sexual assault, armed robbery and aggravated battery with a firearm. Last year, 150 people were arrested in Chicago for those crimes.

Under the law, judges are required to consider any statements by suspects inadmissible as evidence if they haven’t been recorded on audio or video.

The Chicago Police Department has upgraded its equipment and is ready to handle the additional recordings, says Anthony Guglielmi, chief spokesman for Supt. Eddie Johnson. New cameras and recording equipment have been installed at the department’s North, Central and South detective headquarters and in two other police facilities on the West Side, according to Guglielmi.

“This is a welcome change,” Eugene Roy, the city’s chief of detectives, says of the additional recordings being required. “There will be an impact on the bureau of detectives, but we are confident it will be manageable.

“Of course, there will be some increased burden to comply with the law,” Roy says. “But we recognize the value in providing documentation of confessions, statements and interviews, as well as the conduct of detectives and officers.”

Lt. Marty Ryczek shows off a Chicago Police Department video control room in 2005, when Illinois law began requiring the recording of homicide interrogations. AP file photo

Lt. Marty Ryczek shows off a Chicago Police Department video control room in 2005, when Illinois law began requiring the recording of homicide interrogations. AP file photo

Before the law was passed in 2013, state Rep. Scott Drury, D-Highwood, originally proposed that police be required to record interrogations in all felony cases. The Cook County state’s attorney’s office opposed that as too broad.

Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, championed the narrower version of the law that was passed, which expanded recording of interrogations to eight other crimes in addition to murder. The new requirements have been phased in.

At the time the law was approved, Alvarez, head of the state’s busiest prosecutors’ office, said she was worried about the financial burden it would place on her office and on police departments. She ended up supporting the politically popular measure, though.

Valentini says the state’s attorney’s office has asked for money for additional prosecutors but was denied by the Cook County Board. The president of the board is Toni Preckwinkle, who backed her former aide Kim Foxx in her successful bid this spring to unseat Alvarez as the Democrats’ candidate for state’s attorney this fall.

Kim Foxx, the Democratic candidate for Cook County state's attorney. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times file photo

Kim Foxx, the Democratic candidate for Cook County state’s attorney. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times file photo

Foxx says she doesn’t know whether she’ll seek money for more prosecutors. “I am not saying you don’t ask,” she says. “But you have to look at all your existing resources and how they are used.”

Foxx says more recordings “will create more work for the state’s attorney’s office to do.

“When this was expanded to homicide cases, there were concerns about getting it done, and it worked,” Foxx says. “We have to make it work.”

Valentini calls the requirement for additional recordings “a great idea.”

“We are always imposing on police departments to make further investigations and run down every lead — those that might incriminate a suspect and those that do the opposite,” he says. “We need to know everything they say.”

He says he worries that prosecutors might not know that as soon as they should, with the flood of new videos.

“It’s life-altering,” Valentini says of the decision to approve filing criminal charges. “You want to make sure you are familiarizing yourself with a totality of the evidence. If a suspect makes video or audio statements, you want to make sure you listen to those, if you can, before a charging decision.”

Contributing:Mick Dumke

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