Eyewitness Reforms Meet "Resistance from the Very People Who Should Care Most about Justice for All"

Professor Katherine Ramsland of DeSales University has a new commentary in the Philadelphia Inquirer on the widespread resistance among law enforcement officers to policy changes designed to make law enforcement more accurate and effective. At the top of that list is a set of proposed measures known to make identification procedures more accurate, and less likely to pollute witness memory with police suspicion.

Prof. Ramsland likens the resistance that advocates for changes in lineup procedures are facing today, to police resistance to mandatory Miranda warnings in the 1960s.

They said that articulating those rights hampered their ability to get confessions and released more criminals on technicalities. In other words, if an arresting officer forgot the warning or failed to notice that the subject was not competent enough to waive protected rights, the case could be tossed.

The climate is much the same surrounding efforts to modify lineup procedures to comport with research that has pointed the way to a more reliable set of practices which are less likely to result in misidentification, and ultimately wrongful conviction.

Now we are seeing a host of new policy changes on the horizon. These changes will help minimize false convictions. And again, we see resistance from the very people who should care most about justice for all. It is almost as if the law-enforcement establishment believes it is more important to convict and then let the system sort it out. But those who believe this have not fully grasped the harm some current procedures have perpetrated on the innocent. Law enforcement should welcome – not reject – changes designed to protect.

(Emphasis mine.)

Ramsland also details what we know about wrongful convictions resulting from misidentification, and the likelihood that the problem is far more widespread than the DNA exonerations are able to reveal.

Prof. Ramsland’s frustration at the resistance to the clear mandate of the social science community that has scrutinized these problems for over three decades is unmistakable.

It is almost as if law enforcement does not want to identify and exonerate the innocent. Eight states do not yet mandate giving inmates postconviction access to DNA analysis. Five states defeated bills intended to change policies on eyewitness identification. The California State Sheriff’s Association opposes bills that require officials to record interrogations and corroborate informant information; the purported fear is that such procedures would create loopholes for defense attorneys to exploit. This organization also opposes new procedures for suspect lineups. Research has revealed that witnesses, when asked to pick from lineups, make comparisons among those lined up, which can alter their memory. Or they may simply choose the one who “looks” criminal. (The recent study by the Chicago police department that “proved” that current methods worked just fine was significantly flawed.)

(Emphasis mine.)

The English jurist William Blackstone famously said: “Better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” Apparently that’s literary fluff to some people. They should talk to exonerated convicts.

That doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

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