In effort to prevent wrong arrests, Mo. PD changes eyewitness procedures
The policy, which went into effect this month, is aimed at "protecting the innocent from misidentification in every way possible"
By Luke Nozicka
The Kansas City Star
KANSAS CITY — The Kansas City Police Department has implemented eyewitness identification procedures that it says will help prevent misidentifications and wrongful convictions.
Members of the police board that oversees the department, in June, talked about reforming the way detectives use victims and eyewitnesses during criminal investigations. On Thursday, the force said it has made the new policy a reality.
There had previously been nothing in department policy governing eyewitness identification. Each unit within the force conducted those procedures differently. Detectives learned from each other, but there wasn't any set standard.
The policy, which went into effect this month, states it is aimed at "protecting the innocent from misidentification in every way possible," while also working as a tool for detectives.
It requires that all eyewitness identifications be recorded "whenever possible" in their entirety with audio or video. It also means if detectives turned off the camera, they would have to say why and alert a supervisor.
When showing a witness a photo array, detectives will now be required to say that the person of interest "may or may not be present" in the images. The witness would then be asked to describe their "level of certainty" about the identification in their own words.
Detectives will not use facial composites under the policy. Using a sketch artist requires approval by a commander.
Faulty eyewitness identifications have contributed to about 70% of the more than 360 wrongful convictions reversed by DNA across the U.S., according to the Innocence Project. That percentage is even higher in Missouri.
The department consulted innocence lawyers while creating the policy and allowed an attorney with the Midwest Innocence Project to attend its training with detectives.
In a news release, police said the department "always wants to make sure that justice is served in criminal cases and this new policy is going to help ensure just that."
Tricia Rojo Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project, congratulated and thanked the department, particularly Capt. Everett Babcock, for implementing the policy. Babcock "spearheaded" the project, police said.
"This is making sure that this evidence is reliable," Rojo Bushnell said. "So not only does this protect defendants, it protects victims from having to be cross-examined or asked later about an identification that may have been mistaken when it's not their fault but that the process created."
It also protects officers and prosecutors, Rojo Bushnell said. She hopes other law enforcement agencies follow suit.
Missouri does not mandate that police have an eyewitness policy that meets reliability standards, as 28 other states do.
In a statement, the Jackson County Prosecutor's Office said it was pleased to see the department's efforts to improve its practices.
"Requiring that someone who doesn't know the suspect show photos to a victim or witness for identification is a key improvement," spokesman Mike Mansur said.
When the police board discussed the policy in June, Mayor Quinton Lucas said creating a policy would hopefully make sure convictions like that of Kevin Strickland — who Jackson County prosecutors now say is innocent — "never happen again."
In Strickland's case, the lone eyewitness to the 1978 triple murder for which he was convicted said she could only identify two of the four suspects that night. She identified Strickland the next day after she described a shotgun-wielding suspect to her sister's boyfriend, who then suggested that suspect might be Strickland. She later recanted and wanted Strickland freed, prosecutors say.
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