The Department of Justice has instituted new guidelines regarding identification in photo arrays of suspects, making the procedure more scientifically rigorous. Notably, these changes include a “blind” administration—where the person giving the exam doesn’t actually know who the actual suspect is—and recording the identification session.
The new guidelines, which were released last Friday, state:
There are times when such “blind” administration may be impracticable, for example, when all of the officers in an investigating office already know who the suspect is, or when a victim-witness refuses to participate in a photo array unless it is administered by the investigating officer. In such cases, the administrator should adopt “blinded” procedures, so that he or she cannot see the order or arrangement of the photographs viewed by the witness or which photograph( s) the witness is viewing at any particular moment.
These guidelines apply specifically to federal agencies including the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency, and not to local law enforcement.
However, some local law enforcement agencies have already begun to adopt such policies, including Dallas and Baltimore. In December 2013, the International Association of Chiefs of Police made similar recommendations in conjunction with the Innocence Project. The DOJ’s 2017 revision comes 18 years after the last time federal law enforcement addressed photo array procedures and noted that “research and practice have significantly evolved since then.”
The DOJ specifically noted that the National Academies of Science published a lengthy study on the topic in 2014, taking into account contemporary research.
In that 2014 paper, the NAS also recommended that all photo array identification sessions be recorded where possible. As the DOJ summarized:
A witness’s identification and assessment of certainty cannot be easily challenged if law enforcement agencies electronically record the identification procedure and the witness’s response. Electronic recording preserves the identification process for later review in court and also protects officers against unfounded claims of misconduct. Video-recording is helpful because it allows fact finders to directly evaluate a witness’s verbal and nonverbal reactions and any aspects of the array procedure that would help to contextualize or explain the witness’ selection. As of 2013, approximately one-fifth of state and local law enforcement agencies had instituted video-recording of photo arrays.
“Eyewitness identifications play an important role in our criminal justice system, and it’s important that we get them right,” said Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates in a statement last week.