How to improve identification evidence: Practitioner hits and academic false alarms.

Graham Pike and Virginia Harrison

The Open University

Previous articles written for this site have highlighted the dangers and limitations of eyewitness evidence (see Briggs and Westmarland, 2015), and described how such evidence can all too easily lead to a miscarriage of justice (see Kaye, Drake and Pike, 2014). For example, we noted the work of The Innocence Project, a largely US-based national litigation and public policy organisation, that has to date used DNA analysis to secure 330 exonerations of existing convictions. The average sentence served by the innocent people wrongfully convicted is 14 years, and 18 of the exonerations involved death sentences. Those stats might be frightening in themselves, but they are very likely the tip of a very large iceberg.

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A great deal of academic research has been conducted on how and why eyewitness evidence can be so inaccurate, and academics and organisations like The Innocence Project have done their best to shout the results from the rooftops, yet very little change is evident in the gathering and use of such evidence within the criminal justice system. For example, other than a few localised pilot studies, recommendations coming from organisations such as The British Psychological Society and The American Psychological Association have been largely ignored.

In a recent piece of research conducted through the OU Policing Research Consortium and funded by the College of Policing, we explored why evidence from research concerned with witness identification is not being translated into practice. As a lot of research has already been conducted on the barriers to translation within organisations, including those of the criminal justice system, we instead focused on the research itself, looking at four specific areas:

  • The dissemination of research to criminal justice practitioners
  • The way the research was conducted
  • The need for research and change to practice
  • The aims of the researchers and practitioners

Our research used an online survey which was completed by 153 UK policing personnel, including 32 who work in ID suites (and whose work concentrates on obtaining eyewitness identification evidence). The respondents were generally experienced personnel, with less than 5% having less than 5 years experience, and the majority more than 16 years.

In terms of dissemination, we asked questions regarding practitioners’ knowledge of research and the recommendations that have followed from this. Overall, knowledge was generally poor, with the modal (most common) response being “I don’t know anything [about research]”. Even amongst staff working in eyewitness identification (ID) suites, only 11% indicated they tried to keep up to date with identification research, which was less than the 15% who indicated they knew nothing about this research. A similar pattern was apparent when respondents were asked about the recommendations that have been made from research, with over 50%  indicating that they didn’t know such recommendations even existed.

A number of questions were asked concerning research methodology and analyses used in the witness identification literature. A general picture emerged suggesting that one of the major barriers to putting research findings into practice may be due to the complexities of the research process itself.  For example, the responses collected seemed to indicate that participants saw research in this area as overly complex (in terms of both the methods and analyses employed), which in turn led to conclusions that were also too complex and did not speak to operational needs in a way that was implementable.

When asked about their thoughts on whether current ID procedures were effective or not, the modal response was “They generally work well and don’t need much improvement”, with over 85% of ID personnel selecting either that option or “They work very well”. Although the consensus amongst academics is that significant change is required, this is an opinion that does not seem to be shared by practitioners, and could help explain why there is little engagement with research evidence. After all, if you don’t think the system is ‘broke’, why would you look for research on how to ‘fix it’?

Perhaps the most illuminating question was to do with the type of changes that practitioners thought should be researched and implemented. The data summarised in Figure 1 show that the practitioners surveyed overwhelmingly thought that any potential changes should be aimed at increasing positive identifications – that is, a ‘hit’ outcome where the witness selects the suspect from an ID procedure. There was a difference in opinion as to whether this should not be at the cost of also increasing misidentifications (a ‘false alarm’ outcome where the witness selects the suspect from the ID procedure, but the suspect is actually innocent of the crime being investigated), with ID practitioners favouring increasing positive IDs even at the cost of misidentifications.

Changes to ID procedure

Figure 1 What should changes to ID procedures aim to achieve?

What makes this an interesting result is that it represents a fundamental clash with the aim of most research in the area, which is to reduce misidentifications, even if this was at the expense of a reduction in positive identifications – this is represented by the green bar in Figure 1. In other words, researchers have generally been concerned with finding ways of preventing miscarriages of justice, whilst ID practitioners are concerned with increasing conviction rates. To make matters worse, we know that any attempt to increase positive IDs will also result in an increase of misidentifications and likewise any attempt to reduce misidentifications will result in fewer positive IDs. Thus, the aims of researchers and practitioners are fundamentally at odds.

To conclude, this research shows that in addition to any organisational and cultural barriers to translating evidence into practice, in the critical case of eyewitness identification practitioners know very little about research findings and believe research methods, analyses and conclusions to be too complex. Perhaps more importantly, there also seems to be fundamental differences between researchers and practitioners in terms of opinions as to the current state of practice and to what the goals of research in this domain should be.

This article summarises preliminary findings that were presented as:

Harrison, V. and Pike, G. (2015).  Police perceptions of eyewitness evidence and research. Paper presented at the European Association of Psychology and Law, Nuremberg, 2015.

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