Fixing the system from within
Anyone who thinks police always resist reforms that can prevent wrongful convictions hasn’t met Chief Darrel Stephens of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (North Carolina) Police Department. In his own department, Chief Stephens implemented reforms that are proven to decrease eyewitness misidentifications. But he didn’t stop there. Chief Stephens helped implement the reforms statewide in North Carolina last year. Now he’s reaching out to police chiefs and sheriffs nationwide to encourage them to adopt procedures that are proven to increase the accuracy of identifications. At the same time, he’s working with the Innocence Project and others to make sure additional field studies of the reforms are conducted that can further improve the procedures. As he prepares to retire, Chief Stephens sat down with The Innocence Project to discuss his experience improving eyewitness identification in his own department, his state and the nation.
Last year North Carolina adopted one of the most comprehensive criminal justice reform packages in the nation, which included substantially improving eyewitness identification procedures. How did you help push that legislation through?
Chief Darrel Stephens:
I was on the Innocence Commission that was first started by Supreme Court Justice I. Beverly Lake, and very quickly we focused onlineups – both photo lineups and physical lineups – because so many wrongful convictions involve eyewitness misidentification.
We know that these reforms don’t happen overnight. How did this evolve in North Carolina?
About two or three years ago, the recommendations for photo lineups were incorporated into the statewide, entry-level basic training for police officers. That was a pretty important first step. It wasn’t required that police departments adopt those procedures, but it was incorporated into the training. In the spring of 2006
our department did adopt the reforms, and last year the new procedures became mandatory statewide.
Can you describe those procedures?
We’ve established the procedures known as “sequential, double-blind.” We have just one suspect that’s included in the lineup, and that person is randomly selected in terms of their position in the lineup. We ask that our officers find fillers that fit the witness description of the perpetrator of the crime. The photos are similar in appearance, nothing that would cause one to stand out from another. Then we have the specific instructions that officers give to the eyewitness before conducting the lineup: “In a moment I’m going to show you a series of photos. The person that committed the crime may or may not be included. You should not feel that you have
to make an identification.” We tell the witnesses to take as much time as they need to look at the photographs and that if they actually identify somebody they will be asked why, and we tell them not to discuss the identification procedure with anybody else. We ask that the witness sign a document that says they’ve been given those instructions.
And then a “blind” administrator, one who doesn’t know the identity of the suspect, shows the first photograph: Do you recognize that person? Yes or no? And then if they do: Why do you recognize this person? And the administrator documents the exact response and that goes all the way through, one-at-a-time, each photo they are shown.
There’s a perception – perhaps a misperception – that police resist these reforms. Is that your experience?
Police officers are like most people – change is difficult – particularly when they don’t understand the basis for the change. Once our detectives understood the research they accepted the need for making the change – they just had to get used to the new procedures.
Did the new reforms have any effect on your work or your department that you maybe didn’t foresee?
The investigators, as they’ve talked about and worked on these different procedures and understood the research, have become much better detectives. They’re able to come to court and say this is the procedure we used, and here’s why we used it, and here are the steps that we took the eyewitness through. So they’re going
to be much more confident as they’re sitting on the witness stand about the approach that we’ve taken. I think that’s a solid benefit.
What motivated you to become involved in this work?
I have been involved in policing for almost 40 years. My career started in Kansas City, Missouri, in the late 1960s where there was an enormous amount of research that was done to improve police practices: patrol research, response time research, research on different approaches to doing an investigation. So I came
from a background in policing where, very early in my career, I was introduced to and involved in research. I spent a year at the National Institute of Justice as a fellow in the early 1970s. So it was natural for me to look to the research to see what we know about different practices, different approaches and techniques. Reading cases where people have been convicted and imprisoned for 10, 15, 20-plus years only to have DNA evidence absolutely clear them, that’s a pretty devastating thing. I don’t think anybody involved in criminal justice, certainly police officers and prosecutors and people that are hearing these cases, can accept that. Our system of justice is such that we should never have an innocent person convicted of a crime.
Were there particular cases that touched you?
All of them. The idea that somebody went through all of the trials and everything else as they move their way through the court system and are then convictedand sentenced and actually doing time when they’re innocent, it’s just something that’s abhorrent to me. I know that a number of cases hinged on eyewitness identification and apparently without sufficient corroborating evidence to that identification. That was really the motivation for my being involved in this.
What are your hopes now that these reforms have been implemented?
First, that people are sufficiently sensitive to the eyewitness misidentification cases. If all you have is eyewitness testimony and you don’t have any corroborating evidence to support it, that’s not a case that should go forward. Second, I hope the research that’s being done now on lineup procedures, whatever it is that we learn from it, that we more quickly adopt that knowledge across the country so that we can absolutely minimize and prevent someone from being convicted of a crime they didn’t commit.
This article was reprinted from the Summer 2008 Innocence Project in Print, our biannual newsletter.
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