New police protocols in San Francisco could help witnesses ID criminals 

click to enlarge San Francisco police say allowing witnesses to identify suspects in a lineup can cause them to compare the choices with one another instead of with their memory of the perpetrator. - EXAMINER ILLUSTRATION
  • Examiner illustration
  • San Francisco police say allowing witnesses to identify suspects in a lineup can cause them to compare the choices with one another instead of with their memory of the perpetrator.

San Francisco police are abandoning their long-standing protocol for police lineups and photo spreads in favor of a new policy designed to reduce misidentifications, a move supported by the district attorney and public defender.

Police Chief Greg Suhr told the Police Commission last week that the department will soon present potential suspects consecutively to witnesses rather than all at once. He said the new, “more progressive” protocol had been developed through discussions with Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s office.

“The chances for a false positive on an identification go down dramatically, it’s been shown in studies, and we believe eventually that’s going to be the standard across the state,” Suhr said.

San Francisco police have chosen to adopt a model of “sequential lineups” embraced by authorities in Santa Clara County and by a 2006 report by the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice.

That report said witness misidentification was one of the most common factors involved in wrongful convictions and executions.

After an arrest, San Francisco police currently have witnesses choose from “six-packs” of photos of possible suspects and, more rarely, from physical lineups of six possible suspects at the Hall of Justice. Critics say those methods can lead a witness to compare possible suspects more to each other, rather than judging each individually against their direct memory of what they witnessed.

“As a defense attorney, I’ve seen misidentifications occur frequently,” Adachi said. “It’s unfortunate, because often it’s a flaw in the identification procedure that’s to blame.”

Police will still present multiple suspects to witnesses, just one at a time. The new sequential lineups also will be “double-blind” whenever possible, meaning that an officer not familiar with the case will lead them to avoid any possible subtle cues by the investigator on the case, police Cmdr. Mike Biel said.

The process of “cold shows,” when a detained and handcuffed suspect is shown to a witness for identification at the scene of a crime, will remain the same, Biel said.

District Attorney George Gascón said the changes would “further advance justice in San Francisco.”

“Eyewitness identification evidence is often crucial in criminal investigations,” Gascón said. “We need to do everything within our power to assure there is no undue or suggestive conduct in the identification process.”

Other studies have disputed the effectiveness of sequential lineups, however, especially in cases involving children, the elderly and cross-racial identification.

“There’s no perfect way to do this,” Biel said. “The idea is to make it as objective as possible.”

Police hope to have the new policy in place by Jan. 1.

aburack@sfexaminer.com

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Monday, Oct 20, 2014

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