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San Francisco Moves to Change Eyewitness Identification Procedures

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In an effort to address challenges presented by traditional eyewitness identification procedures, San Francisco is changing its methods.

Under the present system in the city, witnesses are presented with so-called “six-packs” of photos of suspects. Or, less commonly, physical lineups of six people are presented. Critics of these procedures cite a tendency for witnesses to compare the individuals presented with one another, rather than the memory of  the person that they actually saw.

To address this issue, and in an overall effort to lessen convictions based on erroneous eye witness testimony, San Francisco Police Chief George Suhr recently announced that the city will adopt a model that utilizes sequential lineups. The new protocol was developed in conjunction with the Public Defender’s office. Says Suhr, “The chances for a false positive on an identification go down dramatically, it’s been shown in studies, and we believe eventually that’s going to be the standard across the state.”

Under the new system witnesses will still be presented with multiple suspects, but not all at the same time. Whenever possible, the procedure will be double-blind, meaning that the officer presenting the suspects will not be affiliated with the case in order to avoid providing any subtle cues to the witness.

San Francisco hopes to have the new policy in place by January 1, 2012.

District Attorney George Gascón applauds the progress represented by the change in eye witness identification procedures.  “Eyewitness identification evidence is often crucial in criminal investigations. We need to do everything within our power to assure there is no undue or suggestive conduct in the identification process.”

Sequential lineups are not without their challenges. The San Francisco Examiner notes that studies question their effectiveness “in cases involving children, the elderly and cross-racial identification.”

Police commander  Mike Biel acknowledges the questions presented by sequential lineups, but believes it is still a positive step for San Francisco and, the department hopes, for California as a whole. “There’s no perfect way to do this. The idea is to make it as objective as possible.”

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