It’s the lighting, the lineup and every little detail that can make the difference between sending an innocent person to prison or catching the culprit.
The Arkansas Association of Chiefs of Police adopted a science-based model policy to reduce the mistakes made when collecting and evaluating eyewitness identification information, and James Lampinen, a UA distinguished professor of psychological science, has been traveling around the state to communicate how to put the policy in place.
Lampinen, who has been at the university since 1998, has long been researching the application of memory in the legal system and has always held an avid interest in the standards states develop for eyewitness identification. It can be problematic, he said, because so many who are later exonerated were convicted from misidentification.
Nationally, eyewitness misidentification is the greatest contributing factor to wrongful convictions later proven by DNA testing, playing a role in more than 70 percent of overturned convictions, according to The Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization.
Because of the personal and public significance of the topic, Lampinen was thrilled when he read an op-ed piece in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about Arkansas’ new policy a few months ago. He quickly found the email for Hope Police Chief J.R. Wilson who is president of the association.
“Of course I was stoked,” Lampinen said. “I emailed him (Wilson) to congratulate him on his brief and to let him know if there was anything I could do to help, I’d be glad to.
“They reached out to me and asked if I help by both looking at the policy and making suggestions and by promoting the policy and help train law enforcement.”
It’s is a beneficial partnership, Wilson said. Police are able to learn from Lampinen, the author of the 2012 book “The Psychology of Eyewitness Identification” and a past police trainer, and Lampinen will have support for grants and access to state police for possibly further research, Wilson said.
It is widely known in the legal and scientific communities that eyewitness identification is a problem, but many in the public – despite the high viewer rating of “Criminal Minds” and “Law and Order” – still see the mind as something like a video camera than more of a malleable entity that it is, Lampinen said, and states have been slow to adopt model policies.
In 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice published a set of guidelines for how police should conduct lineups, which were based on scientific research, yet only around a dozen states have adopted the guidelines into their practice. Although Arkansas has adopted this new policy, each police department must decide whether or not to take it on, Wilson said.
“Every police department is required to operate their agencies in a constitutional manner,” Wilson said. “So yes, our model policy is optional, but an agency still to address eyewitness identification.”
Lampinen has been traveling around the state training officers and is working with the association to create an online training course. One of the key points is understanding how to form a lineup.
In experimental studies, Lampinen said, researchers found that around 50 percent of the time someone will choose a filler -- a person chosen and known to be innocent -- from a lineup when the guilty person isn’t present.
“Picking fillers, by the way, isn’t an easy matter. You see cases where the suspect and the fillers don’t look anything like each other,” Lampinen said. “So picking out fillers in such a way that they provide plausible alternative suspects can help protect an innocent suspect.”
Like most researchers, Lampinen does not work on understanding the science of eyewitnesses alone. Senior Abigail Herzfeld is one of his honors psychology students and has been examining how lighting affects people’s ability to ID a suspect.
The two started talking sophomore year about possible projects and found a common interest in the application of psychology in law. In her experiments, they are looking to define the point where an expert could say there was or was not enough lighting for the witness to be able to correctly identify a suspect.
“It seems so trivial, but it really makes a difference,” Herzfeld said.
The association will evaluate the success of current training at the end of the year, but Lampinen’s expertise has certainly helped in police understanding, Wilson said, noting specifically the professor’s recent lecture in Fayetteville.
“He received a really good response,” he said. “He made the science clear in a very understandable way to guys like ourselves.”
Probably about six or seven year, embarked on a model policy project that would provide high risk, critical task policies that all agencies need. We would draft them and provide them to agencies in our state free of charge. The eyewitness policy was part of that.
Viewed by Innocence Project in New York...we made changes they suggested. We began learning about the scientific principles that numerous organizations were suggesting be in our policy.
“He read that op-ed piece and he contacted me. I find out that we have one of the world’s leading experts in eyewitness identification right here at our own university in Arkansas. We started this collaboration and started this friendship.
Did a lecture in Fayetteville for Northwest Arkansas police.
“He received a really good response. He made the science clear in a very understandable way to guys like ourselves,”
“We have also supported him in a grant he is a part of
Came to the UA in 1998. Doing research on application of memory in the the legal system since I started. Interested for a while in the standards states develop for eyewitness identification. Done police training in the past. 13 states already have this policy
A few months ago saw an article with Wilson and talk about the model policy.
“Of course I was stoked. I was excited,” Lampinen said. “I emailed him (Wilson) to congratulate him on his brief and to let him know if there was anything I could do to help, I’d be glad to. They reached out to me and asked if I help by both looking at the policy and making suggestions and by promoting the policy and help train law enforcement.”
Filler is a person we put in the lineup that we know is innocent. If the filler is picked 30 to 40 percent of the time the filler is picked, the would been its likely 30 to 40 percent of cases would involve misidentification
We also know eyewitness identification is a problem from experimental studies. Sometimes the line up at the end of a mock trial will include the guilty person and sometimes not. 50 percent of the time someone will choose a person from the lineup when the guilty person isn’t present.
1999. U.S. Department of Justice published a set of guidelines for how police should conduct lineups, and those guidelines were based on scientific research. States have slowly been adopting those guidelines since.
The association’s goal is for all Arkansas police departments and law enforcement agencies to adopt and use this model policy. Lampinen has provided feedback on the policy and is helping to promote it with law enforcement agencies around the state. He will also help train officers in how to effectively use the method.
Hope Police Chief J.R. Wilson, president of the Arkansas Association of Chiefs of Police, said the model policy will make a difference for investigators and for the public.
“Merely following the science-based suggested practices will reduce incorrect identification and the tragedy of wrongful conviction and incarceration,” Wilson said.
Lampinen is author of the 2012 book The Psychology of Eyewitness Identification. He is a certified law enforcement trainer in Arkansas and has worked around the state to provide expert training on eyewitness identification to law enforcement, the Arkansas Bar Association, and the Oklahoma Bar Association. Chief Wilson says Lampinen will play a vital role in the success of the new procedure.
“The science behind eyewitness testimony is clear and convincing,” said Wilson. “Our challenge now is to get Arkansas law enforcement agencies to implement these policies and commit to the practice. Dr. Lampinen will work with us to help explain the science, answer any questions, and train law enforcement officers around our state. Successful law enforcement requires community partnerships and we are honored to partner with Dr. Lampinen in this endeavor.”
The science-based protocols are supported by the National Academy of Sciences, National Institute of Justice, American Psychological Association, American Bar Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and others. Approximately 30 years of scientific research prove the benefits of these protocols.
The Arkansas Association of Chiefs of Police has also partnered with the Innocence Project and other organizations in this effort. Members of the association leadership recently attended the first National Eyewitness ID Symposium held by the Justice Education Center at Yale Law School to better familiarize themselves with the science behind the protocols.