Lineup Reforms in Real Life

There are a number of law enforcement agencies out there with real lineup reforms in action — like Hennepin County, Minnesota, and Northampton, Massachusetts (PDF), among others — and in every case that we’re aware of where police departments have enacted these reforms, the police themselves have become advocates for them. The reality is, as they will be the first to tell you, that implementing basic reforms like double-blind procedures and cautionary instructions not only make for more reliable identifications, but also make lineup procedures less vulnerable to challenges in court.

We just became aware of reforms currently in place (PDF) in Santa Clara County, California — a county spanning 15 cities and towns presumably with widely varying law enforcement resources, for those who would claim that the reforms are only feasible on a big city budget.

A great quote from the president of the Police Chiefs’ Association of Santa Clara County, on the importance of using sequential lineups (showing one photo at a time) over simultaneous (six or more photos at once) ones:

By studying cases where DNA has proven that innocent people have been convicted, we have learned that there are many causes of false convictions. One cause – cases of good witnesses honestly but falsely making an identification. Exhaustive studies have found that witnesses are much more likely to identify the guilty suspect if the lineup is sequential. Under traditional simultaneous lineups, some witnesses will inadvertently begin to compare the photos to one another instead of comparing the photo to their
memory. Consequently, the identifications are not as reliable as those conducted sequentially.

And on the rationale for using an administrator who does not know the identity of the suspect:

The DOJ study found that even the most experienced officer can inadvertently give subconscious hints to the witness to identify the suspect. This can result in false identification. This change brings us in line with other professionals. For example, doctors who are conducting medical research never know
whether their patient is receiving the new experimental drug or a placebo. This way they can never be accused of influencing the results. By using these new protocols we will bring our practice in line with other professionals.

Seems like a level-headed way to look at it to me.

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