Examples of Law Enforcement Resistance to Science: Part I

Posted: June 19, 2012 in Resisting Science
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My book is subtitled, “Why Law Enforcement Resists Science.”   Here’s what I mean.

Three of the most common causes of wrongful convictions are incorrect eyewitness identifications, false confessions, and faulty forensic testing.  In each of these areas, scientists and researchers have produced considerable scientific research that meets  the highest scientific standards for rigor, analysis, replication, and review.

In all three of these areas, the research has two important aspects.  First, it has uncovered the investigative practices that lead to errors.  Second, it has proven that changes in procedure can reduce the risk of errors, sometimes dramatically.

Here’s an example, from the area of eyewitness testimony.  Thirty years of scientific research has shown us that using simultaneous lineups, in which witnesses see a group of possible suspects together, increases the risk of incorrect identification.  Showing the witnesses the members of the lineup sequentially — one at a time — reduces the risk measurably.  Similarly, having the lineup presented to the witness by an officer involved in the case, who knows which person in the lineup is suspected by the police, increases the risk of an incorrect identification.  But using a “double blind” process, in which neither the witness or the person presenting the lineup to the witness know who the right suspect is, reduces the risk of mistakes — again, measurably.

So, how many U.S. jurisdictions — states, counties, or cities — require sequential, double blind lineups, years after science told us how to avoid these mistakes?  According to the Innocence Project, just ten: two states, New Jersey and North Carolina; the cities of Boston, Northampton, MA, Madison, WI, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Virginia Beach, VA; and Ramsey (St. Paul) and Hennepin (Minneapolis) Counties in Minnesota and Santa Clara County, California.  Ten jurisdictions, after more than thirty years of science.

Now that is resisting science — on a massive scale.


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