Newswise — WASHINGTON – Law enforcement officials can reduce mistakes by eyewitnesses to crimes if they follow a series of recommendations that include interviewing witnesses as soon as possible after a crime and videotaping the session, according to the American Psychology-Law Society, a division of the American Psychological Association.

“Over the past few decades, serious concerns have been raised about the potential unreliability of eyewitness identification in criminal cases,” said Gary L. Wells, PhD, of Iowa State University, lead author of the recommendations. “In fact, more than 70% of all DNA exoneration cases involved mistaken eyewitness identification. Given that it is still heavily relied upon today because DNA and other forms of definitive evidence remain extremely rare in criminal cases, improving the reliability of eyewitness identification evidence is an important priority to prevent miscarriages of justice.”

The division’s recommendations were published in the journal Law and Human Behavior

The American Psychology-Law Society published four original recommendations for eyewitness identification procedures in 1998 focused mostly on how suspect lineups were conducted. This 2020 update adds five more that cover the time before a suspect lineup takes place as well as cautions regarding the use of showups. These recommendations are:

  • Advise law enforcement personnel to interview witnesses as soon as possible after a crime has been committed and record it on video 
  • Ensure that police put in writing why a suspect is believed to be guilty of a specific crime before placing him or her in a lineup 
  • Use a lineup with several people instead of what is known as a showup only featuring a single suspect
  • Avoid repetition of a lineup with the same suspect and same eyewitness 
  • Record the entire process on video, from the instructions given to the witness before the lineup to the confidence statement from the witness after the lineup is complete. 

The original four recommendations were slightly modified for clarity and expanded upon when appropriate. For example, the authors now advise that a confidence statement be captured whether or not the witness identified the suspect in the lineup. The previous recommendation was only to get a confidence statement after a positive identification. 

Wells and his colleagues noted that the recommendations include detailed explanations, grounded in psychological science, as to why law enforcement should conduct their identification procedures in such a manner. 

“We think it is important for law enforcement to understand why we made certain recommendations rather than simply being instructed on how to conduct these procedures,” Wells said. “That is why in this update we provided valuable background information on how research in such areas as perception, memory, decision-making and social influence can shape the witness identification process. We believe this document can be a useful resource for training purposes.” 

The recommendations are an official statement of the American Psychology-Law Society (Division 41) and do not represent the position of the American Psychological Association. 

However, the recommendations of Division 41 align with positions APA has taken when it has filed amicus briefs on eyewitness identification research. 

Article: “Policy and Procedure Recommendations for the Collection and Preservation of Eyewitness Identification Evidence,” by Gary L. Wells, PhD, and Christian A. Meissner, PhD, Iowa State University; Amy Bradfield Douglass, PhD, Bates College; Margaret Bull Kovera, PhD, John Jay College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York; Neil Brewer, PhD, Flinders University; and John T. Wixted, PhD, University of California, San Diego. Law and Human Behavior. Published online Feb. 3, 2020. 

Full text of the article can be found at  https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/lhb-lhb0000359.pdf.

Contact: Gary L. Wells can be contacted via email at glwells@iastate.edu 

The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States. APA’s membership includes nearly 121,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives.

SEE ORIGINAL STUDY