Trained' Police Officer No Better Than 'Regular Guy' at Eyewitness ID

The Eyewitness ID Reform Blog reports on a Federal Court’s ‘misunderstanding’ of Eyewitness identification ‘science’ in the denial of an expert witness’ opinion. Citing the decision:

Officer Catterton served as a military police officer for the United States Army for six years. He has been trained to be constantly observant of his surroundings, especially the people he encounters on the job.

He has been specifically trained to observe and remember the faces he comes across so that they may be later identified.

Criminal defense attorneys hear this garbage all the time. Basically, it’s a way of saying ‘this police officer is better than everyone else at (fill in the blank) because we sent him to a class about it.”

Well, it worked for Columbo didn’t it? Wasn’t he able to immediately and accurately attach himself to the murderer within 30 seconds of arriving on scene? Must have been his special ‘police training’.

Unfortunately for the innocent defendant, it turns out that real life doesn’t work exactly like it does on TV. As Eyewitness ID Reform points out:

In fact, the specific question of cops vs. college students as eyewitnesses has been studied, and all the evidence shows that trained police are no better at remembering perpetrator identities than random college students. See, for example, a 1998 study by Christianson & Karlsson: Police personnel as witnesses to a violent crime, 3 L. & Crim. Psychol. 59 (1998) (cops are no better at identifying perpetrators than civilian college students).

And yet judges continue to rely on this false notion in rendering critical decisions, and in turn juries end up relying on the same false notion in their deliberations, because actual experts are prohibited from testifying to the actual scientific findings that clearly clash with the widely held common sense view.

Mind you, this comes up in the context of a Federal Judge denying a defendant the opportunity to put on his witness to explain to the jury that mistakes happen. All the time in this context.

That’s right. You are on trial for your life and liberty, facing prison time, and you want to be able to explain the real science of mistaken identification to the jury…but the judge won’t let you…because, after all, the witness against you is a cop. And they are special.

Sure, scientific studies have documented that they aren’t any better able to identify folks than anyone else. But the prosecutor will be allowed to argue that they are. And you are denied the opportunity to present the scientific truth.

Eventually, Wikipedia is going to have an entry about Eyewitness Identification.

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Donna - January 18, 2008 3:52 PM

It is accepted in Oregon (and stated in the ORS laws), that a substantial error on a police report is not enough to consider the report to be erroneous. So, example A:
Police report: Accused claims to have seen child pornography on the internet, but never rerported it.
(This is a crime in many states, including OR).
Truth: On tape it's recorded: I saw pornography on the internet once and turned it into to ASACP.

The truth - the accused turned it into a federal reporting website. But, that website didn't log their information, so now, the cops think, 'aha! - They can't PROVE, they did!' And, their narrow spectrum of vision closes to the point of including false information on a police report that leads to an indictment and will be used against the accused during trial. But, that's NOT what was said. The problem, officers are given an extended forgiveness policy knowing that many of them fill in reports after the fact. What that ignores, is that the officer had a recording to use and did not need to rely on memory (but of course, that part is not in the ORS laws....)

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