Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Georgia Cops Resist Reform, Defend Flawed Status Quo

In the second day of hearings by the Georgia House committee organized to consider a new law mandating that police adhere to well-established best practices when conducting eyewitness lineup procedures, law enforcement officials were out in full force in opposition.

Given the total lack of empirical support for that position, cops are left to rely on baseless claims in defense of the status quo:

Monday, Chief Louis M. Dekmar of LaGrange spoke for the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police when he said many questions remain about university studies into eyewitness misidentification. For instance, real witnesses are more careful about the consequences of a mistaken identification than students are when they volunteer to participate in an experiment.

"Folks don't just jump out there and make an identification unless they're certain," he said.

Of course, we know the opposite is true from both the scores of wrongful convictions resulting from witnesses doing exactly that, and from numerous studies showing a striking lack of correlation between witness "certainty" and actual accuracy.

Harris County Sheriff Mike Jolley, president of the Georgia Sheriffs Association, told the committee that a single law would prevent witness procedures from continuing to improve when research determines yet a better way to conduct lineups. That's why individual police agencies need the freedom to write their own policies and to update them when needed.

If that concern bore any resemblance to the reality in the state, the argument might carry with it some force. Unfortunately, as we reported recently, most Georgia cops have no eyewitness guidelines to speak of.

The Sherriff went on:
Plus, some county sheriffs' offices only have four deputies, too few to conduct elaborate lineup procedures if required by law, he said.

The "resources" argument falls equally flat, as zero-cost methods (PDF) (see "folder method," p. 10) have been developed, which are the antithesis of "elaborate" and can be implemented with no more than a stack of photographs and manilla folders and a few minutes of training.

The law mandating best practices is needed precisely because Georgia cops have failed to take action to curb the state's wrongful conviction problem on their own. They have known about the problem for long enough to take action, and they have not done so. Hopefully Georgia legislators will see the debate for what it is, and move Georgia police practices into the present day by passing this law.

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