Dallas County, notorious for its status as the county with the worst wrongful conviction record in the country, is now, at least ostensibly, making efforts to remedy this systemic problem. Eleven of the 13 wrongful convictions uncovered by the Innocence Project in Dallas County in the last six years resulted from faulty eyewitness evidence collected through flawed police procedures. Acknowledging that problem, Dallas county is taking part in a $300,000 federally funded study, aimed at identifying the most reliable lineup procedures by way of a pilot program.
State Senator Rodney Ellis, from Houston, has been involved in reform efforts in the state for some time.
“Dallas ought to be a laboratory – a poster child for reform,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who unsuccessfully tried to get the state Legislature to set up a working group to come up with a model policy for lineup procedures.
He lauded the department’s willingness to get involved: “We all ought to be interested in law and order, but it would certainly be nice to get the right one.”
One of the procedural reforms being tested is the “sequential double-blind” method recommended by social scientists who have studied lineup procedures in connection with eyewitness memory.
The starting point of any lineup reform effort should be an across-the-board requirement that all lineups be conducted blindly, as it is well-established across the sciences that people conducting experiments will inadvertently (if not intentionally) influence the outcome, when there is an expected or anticipated result — that is, when the person conducting the lineup knows the identity of the suspect.
Testing the “accuracy” of blind procedures vs. non-blind is inherently problematic, however, without some sort of “ground truth” against which to compare the results. The likely outcome is quite likely to be that witnesses choose the police suspect more often when lineups are not conducted blindly, which does no more than confirm the influence of administrator bias. The problem is knowing whether or not the suspect is the actual culprit. In fact, if all we were after were a procedure most likely to result in an identification of the police suspect, we could just bypass the identification procedure altogether and move straight from suspicion to indictment. But hopefully the good people of Dallas County will assess the results of this project in good faith and account for this basic requirement in their analysis.
Unfortunately, the synopsis provided by the Dallas Morning News isn’t encouraging on this front:
The method that leads to the fewest identifications of people who are not the suspected guilty party is expected to be the preferred method for conducting lineups.
In other words, if the procedure where the cop is pointing at the suspect and salivating like Pavlov’s dog more often results in that person being picked — with no knowledge of whether or not that person is actually the perpetrator — then that procedure will be deemed superior. Hopefully this apparent fundamental flaw in the conception of this pilot project is either a reporting mistake, or if an actual reflection of the intended assessment metric, will be cured before the first the first tax dollar is wasted.
Another component being tested is the sequential presentation of the photos, which social scientists recommend, but caution should only be done if the lineup is also conducted blindly. Sequential presentation of lineup photos by an administrator who is aware of the identity of the suspect is more dangerous than even the traditional “six-pack” photo array, because the inadvertent influence of the administrator takes on heightened power when the suspect’s photo is displayed by itself. Nonetheless, the Dallas project apparently intends to spend tax money testing this obviously flawed format as well.
The rational approach would be to treat blind not as a variable, but as a baseline. Blind procedures are scientific; non-blind are not. One protects against bias; one does not. It should be that simple, yet we see another study design that refuses to acknowledge this fundamental problem that continues to infect the reform dialogue.
Showing pictures one at a time provides more accurate results, Mr. Doyle said, because the method is akin to giving a true-false test.
“They have to compare that picture with their memory of the crime,” he said “They can’t compare the pictures with each other.”
And on the pitfalls of the simultaneous format:
But many psychologists consider the traditional method to be similar to conducting a multiple choice test where “none of the above doesn’t seem like a possible answer,” said James Doyle, director of the Center for Modern Forensic Practice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
“What the psychologists believe is happening is that witnesses will pick out the person who looks most like the perpetrator by comparing the people in the array to each other,” Mr. Doyle said.
Dallas County DA Craig Watkins claims to be committed to doing what it takes to fix the system:
“It’s time for us to take a really close look at what we have done in the past and really make the necessary changes so we don’t make the same mistakes,” said Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, who recently created a position to oversee DNA evidence and conviction integrity.
And the Assistant Police Chief as well:
“Everybody in law enforcement wants to use the best system,” said Dallas police Assistant Chief Ron Waldrop, commander of the criminal investigations bureau. “Once it’s been shown scientifically which is the best system, I think everybody will move to that system.”
Then again, no one disputes that the most basic reform measure, namely blind procedures, is unequivocally less likely to result in wrongful convictions. Or at least no one does so with a straight face. This recommendation is a simple suggestion that one of the most basic lessons of science be applied to police procedures, based on decades of uncontroverted research across the sciences, and yet police departments and DA offices across the country continue to resist.
Let’s hope Dallas County will count itself among those reversing the anti-science trend, and that this pilot project isn’t another squandered opportunity to fix a serious and widespread problem.