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Austin Police Department Enacts New Witness Lineup Policy
Eyewitness misidentification: it's the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions, according to the Innocence Project, and this week, the Austin Police Department is revamping its witness lineup policy to reduce the chances the wrong person is charged.
Being accused of a crime you didn’t commit. "More so than many places we get people calling us about false arrests here in Austin," said Wayne Krause Yang, Legal Director for the Texas Civil Rights Project.
Or worse, convicted.
"I'm only aware of one that happened many, many years ago," said Chief Art Acevedo. “We're taking a huge step into insuring a wrong person is not wrongfully identified."
As of Sunday, Austin PD will now only give photo or live lineups of potential suspects one at a time, or sequentially, instead of six at once. Right now they use both methods.
"Sequential lineups are a tool that prevents people from making decisions that they're not otherwise sure about,” said Yang, who said TCRP supports APD’s decision, calling it a positive step in eliminating misidentifications and false arrests.
So why now?
“The findings were pretty conclusive for us," said Chief Acevedo.
In 2009, both APD and the Travis County DA’s office began taking part in a study with a world-renowned expert on the issue of eyewitness misidentification. Though Acevedo was quoted in a September 2011 New York Times article saying he wasn’t quite ready to move to an entirely sequential system, he says he and other department members have since had a change of heart after seeing more drastic results outside the lab.
"We really became convinced that this was the way to go."
Another police official told us in some setups witness misidentification happened six percent less frequently when sequential order was used. Chief Acevedo says detectives have undergone training during the last few weeks.
Since 2010, the department has also required that any detective giving the lineup not know who the suspect is.
"We wanna make sure that our detectives don't make any suggestions,” said Acevedo.
"If I ask you, ‘Do you think this is (the suspect)? Are you sure?’ that may make you more likely to pick somebody," explained Yang, who added TCRP supports the new method, known as double blind administration.
Police officials said the new policy will not slow down the process of bringing criminals to justice, but rather quicken it because it will help better ensure that the right people are being charged.
"We'd rather go with zero arrests than arrest the wrong person," said Chief Acevedo.
Chief Acevedo says the new sequential rule does have an exception for certain cases involving children, though he wouldn’t specify. He says APD already has a policy in place where eyewitness identification alone is not enough to get a warrant, and a detective must find corroborating evidence.
Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg says she supports the change. "It’s a really important step forward in the field of witness identification," she said. "Research shows doing blind administration, where the officer doesn’t know the suspect, and showing it sequentially cuts down on the number of erroneous identifications. It’s a major step in helping forward attempts to fight one of the main causes of faulty identification."
By Adam Bennett