Thursday, September 17, 2009

Time to improve procedures on police lineups

Because the Texas Legislature left eyewitness ID reforms hanging this year during the partisan meltdown at the end of session, for now it's up to local Texas police and sheriffs departments to address the problem, as Dallas PD did earlier this year.

For those who won't, there's a high probability Texas will pass legislation in 2011 mandating improved eyewitness ID reforms. (The bill this year enjoyed broad bipartisan support and died for reasons unrelated to its merits.) There's a growing national movement toward improving eyewitness procedures and the issue isn't going away any time soon, as evidenced by this USA Today story on the topic ("States change police lineups after wrongful convictions," Sept. 17). Here's a notable excerpt:

At least five states — Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina and West Virginia — and some major U.S. cities have either revamped or started changing the way law enforcement officials use photographic lineups to identify suspects. Since changing its policy in April, Dallas Police Lt. David Pughes says the department has conducted 1,400 lineups and believes "we're bringing a stronger piece of evidence to court."

Analysts say the changes are transforming the way police investigate crime.

"Challenges to lineups were first dismissed as misguided academic exercises, until (law enforcement officials) could see the concrete disasters resulting in exoneration," says Iowa State University psychology professor Gary Wells, an expert on eyewitness identification.

Of the 242 people exonerated through DNA testing in the past two decades, about 75% of those wrongful convictions involved some form of mistaken eyewitness identification, according to the Innocence Project, which attempts to exonerate the wrongfully convicted using DNA evidence. Stephen Saloom, Innocence Project policy director, says the group is pursuing lineup changes in 10 states during the next year.

Earlier this year, Dallas became the largest police department to stop presenting blocks of mug shots to witnesses. Now, suspects' photographs are presented one at a time by investigators who are not involved in the cases.

The new sequential technique is designed to focus witnesses' memories more precisely on who they saw and not allow for potentially faulty comparisons.

Pughes, who oversees the department's lineup program, calls the modifications a "huge, huge change to the investigative process." He admits the changes came only after Dallas County emerged as the nation's largest source of exonerations. "The lineup process really hadn't been challenged until DNA exonerations brought to light that innocent people were in jail," Pughes says.

I've never heard a sound argument against implementing best practices for photo lineups other than knee-jerk complaints that the people calling for them simply don't trust the police. But in the face of so many DNA exonerations where convictions were based on false IDs, that's an awfully weak position. Nobody thinks all those false IDs were intentionally solicited by officers, but the procedures used to secure them were flawed and unprofessional. It's time to change them.

1 comment:

Scott D said...

Most of the tests on the new lineup procedures (sequential blind lineups) show that while the chances of an identification are lower, the chances are greater that identifications made will be accurate. Anything that improves accuracy is good. As someone with 19 years of law enforcement experience I'd rather have accuracy than quantity. Inaccurate identifications mean that the real bad guy is still out there creating more victims while you are wasting time with the wrongly accused.