A handful of police departments in Rhode Island are on the cutting edge of eyewitness identification reforms – using procedures proven to improve accuracy in criminal investigations. But those are the exceptions, and 75 percent of the state’s law enforcement agencies have no written policy, much less best practices, for conducting eyewitness identification procedures.
Last week, the Rhode Island legislature passed a bill to examine eyewitness identification practices. In an op-ed in today’s Providence Journal, Innocence Project Policy Director Stephen Saloom calls on Gov. Donald Carcieri to sign this important bill. He writes:
This modest bill mandates nothing; it simply creates a task force to study and identify best practices for eyewitness identification procedures. The legislature is to be applauded for bringing this issue to the forefront. Because preventing eyewitness misidentification is everyone’s concern and Rhode Island is not exempt from the eyewitness misidentification problem. Indeed the Office of the Public Defender has been able to document seven cases of wrongful conviction and post-charge exonerations attributable to mistaken eyewitness identification.
Eyewitness misidentification has contributed to 75 percent of the 255 wrongful convictions overturned through DNA testing nationwide, and decades of research has identified simple reforms to the eyewitness identification process that can substantially minimize the risks of misidentification.
By enacting this “modest bill,” Rhode Island will join other states in implementing improvements to traditional identification procedures – helping police apprehend the real perpetrators of crimes and protecting the innocent from wrongful prosecution. Police and prosecutors in major cities such as Boston, Dallas and Denver and smaller ones like Northampton, Mass. have already promulgated updated policies for their law enforcement officials.