Commentary: Fake ‘confessions’ in Florida offer more reason to record interrogations

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The story unfolding in South Florida is as ugly and gritty as anything you’d read in a novel about corrupt cops in a small town.

The feds say the case is clear: When officers in the village of Biscayne Park, just north of Miami, couldn’t solve cases, they’d simply pin the crimes on innocent people — often blacks who’d had past run-ins with the law.

One officer said commanding officers told him: “if you see anybody black walking through our streets and they have somewhat of a record, arrest them so we can pin them for all the burglaries.”

Fake confessions were key.

Cops could just claim the suspect admitted his guilt and voila: Case closed.

One officer admitted last week to fabricating five “confessions” — the details spelled out in the Miami Herald’s latest piece on the scandal: “Cop admits framing two black men as Florida town’s false arrest scandal widens.”

The former chief and two cops have been indicted on charges of conspiring to violate civil rights. All three have pleaded not guilty.

Maybe we shake our heads, wring our hands and say: “How awful.”

But I’ve never much cared for hand-wringing. I prefer action.

Specifically, Florida should follow the lead of 23 other states and require law enforcement to record interrogations in major crimes.

That’s precisely what Tampa Bay Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes proposed in a bill earlier this year.

It seems obvious, right? We live in an era where cameras record every time you walk into a theme park, pay a toll or buy a loaf of bread. Of course we should have cameras or audio running when someone says: “I did it.” Or “I killed her.”

This is a no-brainer. Unfortunately, the Florida Legislature is often a place with no brains.

While Brandes’ bill had broad bipartisan support in the Senate, House Republicans let it die under the leadership of Speaker Richard Corcoran and criminal justice subcommittee chair Ross Spano.

Fortunately, Brandes said this week that he plans to bring the bill back next session — when there are new House members. Good for him.

After all, recordings don’t just help prevent bad cops from faking bogus confessions. They also stop bad guys from weaseling out of legitimate ones. Defense attorneys can’t very well claim a confession was coerced or trumped up when the whole thing was caught on tape.

Orlando residents know the pitfalls of unrecorded interviews better than most. We saw it in the botched prosecution of the Pulse nightclub shooter’s widow.

Law enforcement swore that Noor Salman had confessed to knowing what her husband was planning. But they couldn’t prove it. Why? Because the FBI never recorded any of the 11-hour interrogation. The jury acquitted her.

That means one of two things happened:

Either she confessed — and got off. Or she didn’t — and the officers made it up.

A jury seemed more prone to think it was the latter … or at least that there wasn’t evidence to support the former.

But why play guessing games? Document it all.

Think about it: The only people who don’t want recordings are people who don’t want the truth preserved.

The Florida Police Chiefs Association has been an opponent of past mandatory-recording bills. Asked why, the association sent a statement Tuesday that, while it would consider any new legislation, it opposes “any legislation that limits the introduction into a court of law any evidence that would provide a jury the ability to evaluate all the issues, inclusive of confessions and admissions.”

If that word-salad statement confuses you, you’re not alone. My editor was confused as well.

But they seem to be making the same kind of objections cops once made to being forced to read suspects their rights. Basically: If you give us rules to follow — and we don’t follow them — that could hurt the case.

So follow them. That’s what cops in other states, big and small, red and blue — from Texas and New York to Utah and Maine — do. And not only do they still solve crimes, they often do it more effectively, because their evidence is better documented.

Many Florida police departments already have internal policies that mandate recordings. But not all.

Brandes described his bill as just a “minimal standard,” since it would only mandate recordings during the investigation of serious crimes — such as rape, murder, robbery, child abuse, stalking and other things that could put suspects away for long periods of time. And primarily to situations where suspects are in custody.

This change is overdue. In fact, the state’s own Innocence Commission called for recordings back in 2012.

Maybe it’s time for that commission to reconvene … perhaps in Biscayne Park.

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