A "culture of openness to new information from reliable sources" is a key to reducing the problem of wrongful convictions in American criminal justice, the International Association of Chiefs of Police said today.
The IACP issued a federally-funded report, announced in conjunction with The Innocence Project, concluding that "law enforcement can take a lead role in preventing and reducing wrongful convictions by eliminating the arrest of the wrong person." The report includes 30 recommendations for dealing with the problem.
The new report was based on a Wrongful Conviction Summit held last year in which the IACP assembled 75 experts to dissect the wrongful conviction problem. The project was supported by the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Justice Programs. Its release had been planned for October's annual IACP convention but was delayed because of the federal government shutdown.
The IACP's role in issuing the report is significant partly because many of the 1,135 exonerations in the U.S. recorded by the National Registry of Exonerations from 1989 to 2012 have been brought to public attention by private organizations such as The Innocence Project, and in large part blamed on prosecutorial ineptness or misconduct.
Now the policing profession is acknowledging more directly its role in the problem and suggesting ways of avoiding erroneous charges long before they lead to convictions.
The report covers a number of familiar culprits, including biased investigators, witness misidentifications, faulty forensic science, false confessions, and the failure of authorities to consider evidence that could clear suspects of charges.
A leading cause of wrongful convictions, the report said, is "tunnel vision" by investigators under pressure to solve a major case, who may jump to conclusions about the guilty parties and not seek other suspects or view their initial evidence with enough skepticism.
This flaw can be exacerbated by an organizational culture in policing that typically puts one officer or a small group of investigators in charge of a case and discourages colleagues or supervisors from interfering, the IACP said. The report concluded that such "cultural challenges create a climate that is ripe for errors to occur and for a wrongful conviction to take place."
The recommendations are divided into eight categories:
* Eyewitness identifications, including better lineup procedures, more research, and better officer training.
* False confessions, testimony and informants, including a call to record all law enforcement interviews.
* Preventing investigative bias.
* Improving DNA testing procedures.
* Expanding access to the CODIS DNA database and providing more resources to small law enforcement agencies.
* Creating a "culture of critical thinking" in law enforcement to help prevent wrongful arrests.
* Leveraging technology and forensic science, including the evaluation of current protocols and investing in emerging technology.
* Openness to new information in re-examining closed cases.'
The IACP said it would have four of its standing committees with jurisdiction over issues raised in the report pursue the establishment of pilot experiments in law enforcement agencies of different sizes, and seek support from government, corporate, and foundation resources to expand successful pilot projects on a national scale.
The summit on wrongful convictions was a project advocated by former IACP president Walter McNeil, police chief of Quincy, Fl.
McNeil took part in a press conference today at the Alexandria, Va., Police Department, to announce the findings, along with Barry Scheck, co-founder of The Innocence Project, Alexandria Police Chief Earl Cook, victim advocate Jennifer Thompson, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Karol Mason, Director Joye Frost of the Justice Department's Office for Victims of Crime, Acting Director Greg Ridgeway of the National Institute of Justice, and Marvin Anderson, an exonerated person who is a member of The Innocence Project's board of directors.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists, and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.