Eighty-four Percent of Police Depts. Have No Policies for Proper Eyewitness Identification: NIJ

Posted: June 12, 2013 in Eyewitness Identification
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It has been almost fifteen years since the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) recommended comprehensive changes to the ways that police conduct identification procedures for witnesses.  Yet USA Today reports that a new NIJ report reveals that 84 percent of U.S. police departments still have no policy to govern how live lineups are conducted.

Readers of Failed Evidence know that almost three quarters of wrongful convictions  overturned through DNA feature incorrect eyewitness identifications; it’s the single largest source of error in these cases.  Readers also know that a growing number of jurisdictions (for example here and here,) have adopted changes to eyewitness identification procedures to eliminate these errors, through blind administration of lineups, use of sequential lineups, and other procedures that decades of research has proven to reduce these errors greatly.

But the NIJ study concludes that most of agencies have no policies for how officers conduct these crucial procedures.  Eighty-four percent of the responding police departments said that they had no policy for live lineups, and sixty-four percent said they had no policy for conducting photo lineups.

The study was conducted for NIJ by the Police Executives Research Forum, “a police research organization and a provider of management services, technical assistance, and executive-level education to support law enforcement agencies.”   PERF surveyed hundreds of U.S. police agencies, large and small, to determine how many had at least taken the step of creating a policy to require officers to use at least some of the recognized best practices for eyewitness identification.  PERF researchers found larger police agencies more likely than smaller ones to have a policy in place, but even among the large agencies, fully twenty-five percent did not have a policy.

For those who follow these issues, as I do, the fact that so much of the law enforcement establishment has failed to make changes in basic investigative procedures is not entirely shocking; the resistance to science and the changes it points to is the central theme of my book Failed Evidence.  But the results of the study are nonetheless disappointing, if only because eyewitness identification reform is one of the areas in which there is the greatest consensus that basic changes are needed; there is also broad consensus one what those changes needed most are: blind lineups, sequential lineups, valid ways of dealing with witness confidence statements, instructions to witnesses, and the like.

  1. Brian, thanks — this is very helpful and valuable information. I’d urge everyone to check out what Brian has offered.

  2. Brian Cutler says:

    The NIJ study is most interesting and points to the need for additional lineup reform. I would add that among the policies that do exist, there is considerable variation with respect to the recommended procedures. My former graduate student Andrew Smith and I recently compared 13 sets of recommendations in a chapter published in Reform of Eyewitness Identification Procedures (2013, American Psychological Association Press — I was the Editor of the volume). The 13 sets of guidelines included those produced by organizations (ABA, US DOJ, Canada DOJ, IACP), police departments in various states (MD, IL, NJ, MA, NC, CA, WI), and PACE from Great Britain. The most common recommendations are unbiased lineup instructions (13/13) and documentation of lineups (12/13). Fairly common were recommendations concerning the assessment of confidence (11/13), double-blind procedures and the match-to-description strategy for selecting fillers (10/13). Mention of other procedural aspects varied much more. Sequential procedures were recommended in 8 of 13 guidelines. Minimum numbers of fillers varied considerably. Recommendations concerning the separation of witnesses, rare use of showups, uniformity of photos, avoiding exposure to the suspect before the lineup or multiple ID tests, and the behaviors of people in a live lineup were relatively uncommon. The analysis suggests that there is room for improvement and greater standardization in existing policies and points to new areas where research is needed. For those interested in learning more, chapters in the edited volume review the latest psychological research on showups, lineup instructions, selecting fillers, sequential presentation, double-blind administration, assessment of confidence, and other related topics.

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