Police Chiefs Propose Reforms To Prevent Wrong Convictions

Dec 8, 2013
Originally published on December 8, 2013 11:50 am
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The advancement of DNA evidence over the past few years has generated a wave of exonerations around the country. Legal advocacy groups have been working to reduce the number of wrongful convictions for a long time, but now a group of law enforcement leaders are joining the cause.

Last week, the International Association of Police Chiefs, or IAPC, issued a series of recommendations, including new guidelines for photo lineups, the use of informants and interviewing witnesses.

Walter McNeil is the police chief of Quincy, Florida. He's also the former president of the chief's association, and he joins us now from member station WFSU in Tallahassee.

Welcome to the program.

WALTER MCNEIL: Oh, thank you. Glad to be here.

MARTIN: These recommendations came out of national convention held last year, something called a Wrongful Conviction Summit. The summit was your idea. I wonder what caused you to decide it was time to tackle this issue head on.

MCNEIL: We in law enforcement, we understand that whenever the wrong person is convicted, that means that the person who actually did the crime has gone free. And not just myself, but my colleagues around the country wanted to get hold of this issue and address this issue perhaps from a perspective that had not been approached previously. And that is, well, let's look at this from the front end. Let's see if we can't stop wrongful convictions by making sure that we do everything we can to make the best arrest we can possibly make.

MARTIN: You and the Association of Police Chiefs have issued some 30 recommendations. Could you run through a few that you think will have the greatest impact.

MCNEIL: One of those obviously, is looking at our process when we're looking at eyewitness identification. One of the things we know is that when we only have one element of an arrest, and that being an eyewitness who observes what took place, if that's the only piece of evidence we have, then we want to make sure that we do that in a prescribed way, to do as much as we can to eliminate human error. And that's why one of the better recommendations coming out of this is to move from the photo array when looking at photographs of suspects, and moving into an environment where we're looking at double blind sequential reviews of photographs. And what that really means is to make sure that the investigator - him or herself that's involved in the case - isn't the person who presents the pictures to the witness.

MARTIN: And why would that compromise the process?

MCNEIL: Well, so that we eliminate the potential for there being any bias in terms of the investigator who's intimately knowledgeable of the case. And there may be body language and those kind of things that aren't intended that gets related back to the witness. We also are in our report are recommending that we create investigative teams that go back and look at closed cases. And that any time new information develops, we have a responsibility to go back, check that information out, and if the changes the circumstances or provides different information, that we share that information with the defense attorneys and see exactly what, where that leads us.

And also, I must say that the next iteration of this is to work with the Innocence Project at the national level and the IACP to figure out how we then move forward with best strategies in terms of how to get these recommendations in the field. The dialogue will continue.

MARTIN: Walter McNeil is the police chief of Quincy, Florida. Chief McNeil, thank you so much for talking with us.

MCNEIL: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.