By Spencer S. Hsu,
The nation’s police chiefs will call Tuesday for changes in the way they conduct investigations as a way to prevent wrongful convictions, including modifying eyewitness identification.
In a joint effort with the Justice Department and the Innocence Project, an advocacy group for prisoners seeking exoneration through DNA testing, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) will urge police departments nationwide to adopt new guidelines for conducting photo lineups, videotaping witness interviews and corroborating information from jailhouse informants, among 30 recommendations.
The group also calls for new tools to identify investigations at high risk of leading to a wrongful arrest, as well as formalizing the ways flawed cases are reviewed and claims of innocence are investigated.
“At the end of the day, the goal is to reduce the number of persons who are wrongfully convicted,” said Walter A. McNeil, the police chief in Quincy, Fla., and past president of the chiefs association, which convened a national policy summit on wrongful convictions. “What we are trying to say in this report is, it’s worth it for all of us, particularly law enforcement, to continue to evaluate, slow down, and get the right person,” McNeil said.
Legal experts said the findings, which were funded by the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs, mark a milestone in the deepening engagement by police and prosecutors in correcting breakdowns in the criminal-justice system. Those errors have been exposed in recent years by advances in DNA profiling.
The findings also reflect a new emphasis by police on preventing mistakes from occurring, as well as a growing willingness to investigate past errors by adopting what the IACP called a “culture of openness” in rethinking how police analyze evidence and tackle problems such as investigative bias.
“We may appear to some to be strange bedfellows, but in fact we all support these reforms because they protect the innocent and enhance the ability of law enforcement to catch the guilty,” said Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project.
Criminal prosecutions are handled overwhelmingly at the state and local level, and the IACP said its summit was the first national-level symposium on the subject to be led by law enforcement.
With 17,000 of its 22,000 members in the United States, the IACP brings an influential voice of police professionals to active debates over how police should ask eyewitnesses to identify suspects, for example, and how law enforcement should address past convictions that may have relied on flawed forensic or other evidence.
Despite their strong impact on juries, witness recollections are wrong about one-third of the time, researchers have found. Eyewitness misidentifications played a role in the majority of more than 300 convictions that have been overturned because of DNA evidence since 1989.
Many police agencies have moved to reduce potential sources of errors or bias, such as by conducting blind lineups in which the police officer who shows a witness photographs does not know who the suspect is.
In addition, research indicates that showing photographs of possible suspects one at a time, or “sequentially,” rather than in a group, reduces misidentifications. But some police agencies have balked, worrying that in practice it may confuse witnesses or create investigative problems.
The IACP acknowledged both viewpoints, calling for more research even as it urged agencies not to wait to adopt blind and sequential lineups.
Nearly 10 states have implemented such policies, as have police departments in large cities, including Dallas and Baltimore.
More than 20 states record interrogations statewide, and another 850 law enforcement agencies voluntarily do so.
With several states and the FBI grappling with how to address convictions that may have relied on flawed forensic evidence, the IACP said it and the Justice Department should provide tools to help agencies investigate claims of innocence and resolve wrongful convictions.
“Any time new information comes forward that could indicate the need for redirection, justice system officials across the continuum must welcome and carefully examine that information,” the IACP said in its report.
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