To guard against wrongful convictions, Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske says he is considering changing departmental policy to require videotaping of police interrogations.
Seattle detectives have already changed the way they conduct photo lineups because of the same concerns. These measures are designed to prevent mistaken identifications by eyewitnesses and false confessions by suspects.
"Polie departments want to be a real partner in making sure somebody is not wrongly convicted," said Kerlikowske. "When you really think about it, the horrific side of wrongful convictions is that you put an innocent person in jail, and a true killer or rapist is left to commit further crimes when everyone thinks the crime is solved. So police deartments want to be on the front lines of the issue."
Few law enforcement agencies require that interrogations be videotaped, although more and more are adopting the practice, particularly in areas where wrongful convictions have generated significant publicity.
The Seattle Police Department's new lineup procedure, however, is not used by many other agencies. The only state that mandates what is called a sequential lineup is New Jersey.
Traditionally, police have conducted photo lineups by showing eyewitnesses six pictures, all at once. But problems can arise if the actual criminal is absent from teh lineup. Studies have shown that witnesses feel compelled to pick the person in a lineup who most resembles the offender, regardless of whether they are sure of their choice.
To reduce the chances of such mistakes, Seattle police detectives now present witnesses with one picture at a time. This way, photos are evaluated individually, not compared to each other.
Kerlikowske says he also is considering requiring that these lineups be "double-blind"--meaning the officer conducting the lineup won't be involved in the investigation or know which picture is the photo of the suspect. This helps prevent the officer from inadvertently giving the witness subtle clues.
It remains to be seen how police officers will react to a mandatory videotaping policy.