There’s a very interesting post on the Innocence Blog by Gary Wells, one of the giants in the field of eyewitness identification. “A Short History of Police Lineup Reform” is well worth reading. And so I feel great trepidation when I say: Professor Wells, I do have to disagree with you, just a little bit.
About Professor Wells: his more than four decades of research has been among the most influential work in explaining what goes wrong in eyewitness identification. And this work has gone beyond pointing out what goes wrong to suggesting how to do these things better, often at little or no cost. All in all, his body of work is a remarkable contribution.
Professor Wells’ post charts the history of his own work and the changes in the field, especially how DNA-based exonerations changed everyone’s thinking. Post DNA, the possibility of wrongful conviction was no longer just theoretical, and work on the causes of such errors became much more consequential. As a result, he says, “a number of jurisdictions began to take note of these findings and make reforms to how they conducted lineups.” Change was slow, he acknowledges, and “some” jurisdictions showed “some reluctance.” But now, he says, with additional work confirming earlier findings, police agencies are much more receptive:
Once law enforcement investigators are exposed to the research, they are quite receptive to it. The more lineups they’ve done in their career, the more they can appreciate the idea that there are limitations to eyewitness evidence, which they’ve observed in their own professional experience. Once they know there’s a problem, they’re eager to find a solution.
This is where I have to disagree. It’s true, more police departments are turning to better procedures — some on their own, more because of new state laws and other types of mandates. New Jersey is the best example, and I’ve highlighted that both here in the blog and in Chapter 7 of my new book Failed Evidence, which will be published next month. But, from where I sit, the great majority of states and police agencies at all levels still show what Professor Wells calls “reluctance” and what I call “resistance” to science-based identification practices. They have refused to change, regardless of the scientific evidence.
Here’s hoping that many more law enforcement agencies change their practices based on the work of Professor Wells and his colleagues in the field.