Questions for Cops

The Niemen Foundation for Journalism at Harvard has a new entry up on its press watchdog blog, setting out a list of questions that the press should be asking local law enforcement and prosecutor organizations relating to eyewitness procedures.

The list comes courtesy of eyewitness ID reform institution Gary Wells:

Q. Does your agency have written policies and procedures on live and photo lineups?

Q. What are those policies and procedures? Can we get a copy?

Q. Do your policies and procedures follow the recommendations that have been made by the U.S. Department of Justice and by eyewitness scientists?

Q. How many fillers (non-suspects) are used in your lineups?

Q. What are the procedures used for selecting the fillers to be used in your lineups?

Q. What instructions are given to witnesses prior to viewing a lineup?

Q. Do you use an independent lineup administrator (the double-blind lineup procedure) or do you permit the lineup to be conducted by someone who knows which persons are fillers and which is the suspect?

Q. Do you secure a statement of certainty from the eyewitness at the time of the identification?

According to Dr. Wells, only about 15% of the 14,000 independent law enforcement agencies in the United States have made substantial changes to their lineup procedures to bring them in line with the science and best practices established. Making the good list are the following:

  • New Jersey (the entire state)
  • Boston and many surrounding areas
  • Minneapolis and many surrounding areas
  • North Carolina (nearly all major police departments)
  • Many of the departments in Wisconsin
  • Virginia Beach, VA
  • Santa Clara County, CA
  • Dr. Wells also observes that police tend to be more receptive to these reforms than prosecutors, because they have first-hand knowledge of the “vagaries” of eyewitness identification, through their common experience of a witness picking a “filler” (non-suspect) from a lineup, which serves as irrefutable evidence that eyewitness memory is fallible.

    Prosecutors, on the other hand, often only receive information of “positive” IDs, and thus are more likely to have a distorted perspective on the reliability of eyewitness evidence generally. Which is why we need to continue drawing attention to those places where lineup reforms have proven successful, to show prosecutors and law enforcement agencies that the reforms actually work, make evidence collection more reliable, and ultimately make it more likely that the right people are put away.

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    One Response to Questions for Cops

    1. Ryan says:

      I don’t know why all PDs don’t just adopt these policies since, as Durham PD has shown, you can abandon them at will without any negative consequences.

      North Carolina gets a “good” despite the egregious violations by the Durham PD in the lacrosse case.

      You’d think that following the procedures would be more important than simply having them.

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