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Many local police agencies, however, have written policies to reduce the influencing of witnesses.
Sunday, September 1, 2013
Following a study that found most law enforcement agencies in the commonwealth continue to use outdated eyewitness identification procedures two years after a state panel recommended a model policy, several Southwest Virginia departments say they’re already in compliance with the recommendations or plan to update their policies soon.
At least two agencies that responded to requests for information from The Roanoke Times do not require lineups to be administered by officers who are not part of the investigation — a measure highly recommended by the model policy.
Overall, one-fifth of the 201 agencies that responded to the survey by University of Virginia professor Brandon Garrett didn’t have written policies, and only nine of the 144 agencies that provided him with written policies have implemented the best practices adopted by the state Department of Criminal Justice Services two years ago.
The model policy included several key reforms based on a Virginia State Crime Commission study. It was intended to be clearer and to be adaptable for agencies of various sizes.
Among the key points in the model policy: To avoid giving witnesses inadvertent or intentional cues, photo and in-person lineups should be conducted by “blind” administrators who don’t know who the actual suspect is; and witnesses should be given standardized instructions.
The DCJS also offers a secondary option for smaller agencies, where it may be difficult to find an officer who doesn’t know the identity of the suspect: a “folder shuffle” method, in which suspect photos are put in folders and shuffled, allowing the witness but not the officer to see inside.
The issue is an important one, Garrett said, since errors made when victims or witnesses identify suspects through photo or in-person lineups helped convict 13 of 16 men who were later proven innocent by DNA of rapes or murders in Virginia.
“I find it pretty disheartening,” said Garrett, who helped design the 2011 DCJS policy. “I would have expected that two years into a great model policy — maybe the best in the country — departments would have adopted it.”
Garrett attributed the failure of departments to update their policies to “institutional inertia.” That sort of stagnancy is something the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police addressed this week during its annual conference.
Executive Director Dana Schrad said she and the newly elected president of the group, Charlottesville police Chief Tim Longo, talked to members about the need to have modern written policies in place.
Schrad and Longo, who’s also a lawyer, told the department heads gathered that it was “incredibly important” to have good procedures, “not just to be in compliance with state law, but because it’s a best practice.”
Schrad took some of the blame for her organization’s members not adopting the most modern practices — or in some cases violating state law — saying that some of the agencies might have thought that just having a policy was good enough.
Many of the agencies without written policies are sheriff’s offices that typically do not conduct investigations.
However, a 2005 state law mandates that Virginia State Police and every local police department and sheriff’s office establish a “written policy and procedure for conducting in-person and photographic lineups.”
Schrad, whose organization includes some sheriffs, said even if a department typically doesn’t conduct lineups, it still needs to comply with the law.
“That might be a situation where we might look at the law because it might not make sense to require an agency to have a policy if it’s not a function of the agency,” she said. “But clearly it’s a mandate right now.”
The police departments of Roanoke, Roanoke County and Salem, the Roanoke City Sheriff’s Office, the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office and Virginia State Police all provided or said they had written policies in place when asked by The Roanoke Times.
Roanoke police spokesman Scott Leamon said the city’s policy is considered to be a model for other agencies, and that Chief Chris Perkins, who as of this week sits on the VACP’s executive board, has written articles on the topic.
In Salem, Capt. Tim Guthrie said that the department has had a written policy for several years, but that it lacks some of the best practices recommended by the DCJS.
“We were basically just showing a picture lineup,” Guthrie said. “We revamped the whole thing.”
He said the department will soon use the suggested blind lineup method unless circumstances force officers to use the secondary method, the folder shuffle lineup.
Bedford County Sheriff’s Capt. Kevin Adams said that his department shows witnesses one suspect photo at a time, but that “any deputy or investigator may prepare and present a lineup whether it’s his or her case or not.” He said the department is in the process of revising its policy and could not provide a copy.
Roanoke County police Assistant Chief Chuck Mason said that his agency meets or exceeds the model policy in most ways. He said his agency doesn’t require use of a blind presentation, but recommends it and said it’s often used anyway.
At her group’s meeting this week, Schrad said she offered that smaller agencies might not have the resources to run blind lineups because their staffing is limited.
“It was interesting, when I brought that up as an option, the chiefs said, ‘No, there’s no excuse.’ I was pleased to hear them say that even if you’re small, you should have a policy.”
Like Bedford County, Mason said his office also shows suspect photos to witnesses one at a time, but he said the department will consider the folder shuffle method when the policy is revised over the next few months.
Roanoke City Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Patricia Johnson said the department is modifying its current policy in order to be accredited through the Virginia Law Enforcement Professional Standards Commission.
She expects the new policy to be in place by January. The office’s current written policy, adopted in September 2012, does not follow models laid out by that organization or DCJS.
Schrad said she plans to survey her group’s members in the fall to see how many have implemented changes or are in the process of doing so, and she offered the organization’s help.
Garrett collected his findings from February through April. The full results are set to be published in the Virginia Journal of Criminal Law.
Staff writer Zach Crizer
and The Associated Press
contributed to this report.
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