Most U.S. Police Have No Eyewitness Policies in Place

There is nothing quite as convincing to a jury as an eyewitness identification. Seeing the victim identify their assailant, for example, can have a profound effect on the people sitting in the courtroom. But, eyewitness identifications are called the “single greatest cause of wrongful convictions”; they are unreliable. And according to a new report, local law enforcement agencies across the country aren’t doing all they can to ensure these identifications don’t send an innocent person to prison.

In 75% of known wrongful conviction cases, a flawed eyewitness identification was at play. People’s memory of a crime can be flawed and police procedures can also increase the risk of an incorrect identification. Because of this, there are many things that can be done to reduce the risk of a faulty eyewitness i.d. But, most police agencies aren’t doing them.

Eye chartA new report for the Justice Department, compiled by the Police Executive Research Forum indicates 84% of police agencies have no written policy for conducting live lineups and just over 65% have no written policy for photo lineups. To say these numbers are troubling is an understatement.

“Extremely disturbing,” is how Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project describes it. “These findings are actually worse than we thought they would be,” said Scheck.

Guidelines written in 1999 urged law enforcement to improve their eyewitness policies. But it seems few are following these National Institute of Justice guidelines and instead are just “winging it”.

Both small and large agencies alike are guilty of ignoring the guidelines and research that suggests things like blind lineups and showing photos in sequence rather all at once.

“It is important for police and other justice system officials to exercise caution when using eyewitness identification evidence, particularly in cases were an eyewitness identification is the sole evidence of guilt,” said the report.

Numerous innocent people have been sent to prison where the evidence that sealed their fate was an eyewitness identification or testimony. Taking simple steps to ensure the identifications are as fail proof as possible could have saved these victims of the system and provided real justice by finding those actually responsible for the crimes.

Proper eyewitness standards don’t only protect defendants, they protect the cops and the local governments. It’s anybody’s guess why agencies are still refusing to change their ways.

If you are accused of a crime and are worried about witness testimonies or if you had nothing to do with the crime at all, we may be able to put you in touch with someone who can help. Contact our offices today to discuss your case. 

About David Matson