Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Eyewitness ID lesson: 'Anything you try to change, there's going to be a backlash'

Scripps News Service posted a feature yesterday by Isaac Wolf titled, "Dallas leads the way in addressing wrongful convictions," crediting outgoing Dallas DA Craig Watkins and former police chief David Kunkle in particular for implementing science-based eyewitness identification standards before the Texas Legislature required departments to create such policies. The story concluded:
[Dallas police Lt. David] Pughes knew he would face belligerence when he walked into a training session in the spring of 2009. The officers were eager to defend their integrity and worried that his system would make it harder to get evidence.

As Pughes fired up his Powerpoint, Det. Steve L’Huillier interrupted from the front row. With nearly 30 years on the force, L’Huillier was insulted. “How dare you accuse us all of wrongdoing?” L’Huillier said. “If we had a few cases that resulted in wrongful convictions, that’s a tragedy.” Those were rare exceptions, he argued.

But police had no experience from an eyewitness perspective, Pughes told them. “Once you are able to sit in their chair, walk in their shoes for a minute, the officers came to the realization that picking someone out of a lineup is much more difficult than what you’d think on the outside looking in,” he said.

State lawmakers saw wisdom in the new system too and proposed witness identification reform across Texas. A vigorous lobbying campaign by the Houston Police Union opposed it and the bill failed. But a similar measure succeeded two years later.

A survey last year by the Police Executive Research Forum found that more than two-thirds of police departments in the U.S. still don’t take the most basic step to reduce errors in witness identification: requiring a person unfamiliar with the case to show the lineup. Brandon Garrett, a University of Virginia law professor and expert on wrongful convictions, has watched the opposition succeed time and again. “It’s kind of remarkable how long it takes to make changes that really help the police,” he said.

Kunkle retired in 2010, and this fall Watkins lost a contentious bid for reelection. But their work left an indelible mark, including on Dallas homicide detective Scott Sayers, who had opposed the ID changes. Sayers, who joined the force in 1995, was convinced that killers would get away with their crimes. “In the end, I think that was false,” Sayers says now, adding that the system also better protects officers from court challenges.

Which doesn’t mean the going will be any less contentious next time. “Anything you try to change,” he says, “there’s going to be backlash.”

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