A lot of people at high levels in law and law enforcement accept the fact that the problems raised on this site are real. But many seem to take the view that it is too hard to fix them: after 30 years, the processes and principles are just too deeply ingrained; even if we knew how to fix them, the costs would be impossibly high, especially in this economy.
I beg to differ
First, this negative view fails to account for the costs of doing nothing, which are substantial.
Second, the solutions are not nearly as difficult as seems to be assumed. With understanding of both the legal and the phonetic issues, it is really not hard to come up with a system that will work much better.
It is a big task – but we have achieved something similar in the recent past, with extremely good results, appreciated by all.
How we ended verballing in the 1990s
Traditionally, police were allowed to testify as to what they had heard a suspect say during an interview. During the 1980s and 1990s it became clear that this kind of evidence was open to abuse.
In a number of high profile cases, some uncovered in famous investigations such as the Wood Royal Commission of 1997, it emerged that a small number of police officers had provided misleading statements, falsely claiming that suspects had made a ‘verbal confession’ about a crime. It seemed it had become too easy for police to verbal suspects, by ‘putting words in their mouths’, or fabricating a confession.
It has now become standard practice for police interviews to be recorded on video and audio, with a transcription prepared by independent agents and checked by all parties.
This change, though difficult and expensive to implement at the time, is now welcomed by all concerned – not least by police, who are both protected from false allegations of ‘verballing’, and provided with the means to present highly reliable evidence of wrong-doing.
How we brought back ‘verballing’ with covert recordings
The problem is that allowing police transcripts to ‘assist’ the jury to hear indistinct covert recordings brings back police verballing by a new channel, with the officers not even aware they are doing it.
We need to fix this problem – and we can
We need a way to fix this problem that is as effective as the introduction of recorded interviews was for deliberate verballing – and finding one is not nearly as hard as some seem to assume.
The main difference is that, while transcription of police interviews can be handled (mostly) well on the basis of ‘common knowledge’, ensuring reliable transcription of indistinct covert recordings requires specialised knowledge of both phonetic science and the legal and law enforcement practice. Unfortunately very few individuals embody both kinds of expertise. Hopefully this will soon change, but in the meantime, collaboration is the only way to develop a system that protects all parties from serious mistakes.