Report identified “tunnel vision” as major cause of wrongful convictions and also blamed culture of police as part of problem.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs, and the advocacy group the Innocence Project announced the findings of a new report that examined the causes and solutions to wrongful convictions throughout the justice system at a joint press conference on Tuesday.
The report, the “National Summit on Wrongful Convictions: Building a Systemic Approach to Prevent Wrongful Convictions,” used the Alexandria, Va., police department as a test subject, and contains the expert opinions of 75 different subject matter experts on how to improve policing policies to significantly reduce, if not eliminate, wrongful convictions.
Specifically, the report identified “tunnel vision” as a leading cause of wrongful convictions, and said that investigators who jump to conclusions, don’t investigate other suspects, or fail to review evidence with skepticism in order to close a case faster are perpetuating the problem.
Another problem identified in the report is that the culture of police departments is one in which only one officer or a small group of investigators is reviewing a case, and colleagues and supervisors are discouraged from interfering, which the report says creates a “climate that is ripe for errors to occur and for a wrongful conviction to take place.”
According to a media advisory from the IACP, the report includes 30 recommendations for law enforcement officials to ensure they make rightful arrests, correct any wrongful arrests, use technology and forensic science to their advantage, and re-examine closed cases if new evidence becomes available.
The report concluded that “law enforcement can take a lead role in preventing and reducing wrongful convictions by eliminating the arrest of the wrong person,” and includes several recommendations for law enforcement officials to improve investigative protocols, policies, training, supervision, and assessment.
“At the end of the day, the goal is to reduce the number of persons who are wrongfully convicted,” said Walter A. McNeil, the police chief in Quincy, Fla., and former president of the chiefs association, while talking about the report. “What we are trying to say in this report is it’s worth it for all of us, particularly law enforcement, to continue to evaluate, slow down, and get the right person,” McNeil said.
Between 1989 and 2012, about 1,135 people were exonerated in the U.S. thanks to the work of organizations such as The Innocence Project, which blames many of the wrongful convictions on “prosecutorial ineptness or misconduct.”
As law enforcement officials begin to take responsibility for their role in “erroneous charges,” due to their own biases, witness misidentifications, faulty forensic science, false confessions, and failure to examine evidence that could prove a suspect’s innocence, the IACP said that positive changes can be made.
“Any time new information comes forward that could indicate the need for redirection, justice system officials across the continuum must welcome and carefully examine that information,” the IACP said.
The recommendations were divided into eight categories including:
Eyewitness identifications, better lineup procedures, more research, and better officer training
False confessions, testimony and informants, and recording all interviews
Preventing investigative bias
Improving DNA testing procedures
Expanding access to DNA databases and providing additional resources to small law enforcement agencies
Creating a “culture of critical thinking”
Leveraging technology and forensic science to include the evaluation of current protocols and invest in new technology
Openness to re-examine closed cases when new information surfaces
Although most criminal prosecutions are handled by state and local law enforcement agencies, the IACP has between 17,000 and 22,000 members, who are anticipated to bring some of these recommendations to their departments.