Memory research applied to eyewitness identification: New Department of Justice recommendations

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Last month (January 2017), the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) issued a memo to law enforcement and prosecutors. The subject of the memo was “Eyewitness Identification: Procedures for Conducting Photo Arrays.” The DoJ’s last document that dealt with photo arrays was released in 1999. The authors of this memo acknowledge that a lot of research on eyewitness identification has happened since then, and that it was time to incorporate that research into new guidelines.

The information provided in this document would make a nice addition to your coverage of memory in Intro Psych. It’s a wonderful example of how psychological research can be applied in real-world settings, and in this case, where people’s lives are at stake.

The DoJ recommends that the police officer who is showing the eyewitness photographs of potential perpetrators be blind to the suspect. In other words, the police officer who is showing the photographs has no idea who his/her fellow police officers suspect is the perpetrator. This is for the same reasons researchers are blind to conditions – to avoid unintentionally cuing the eyewitness/research participant. If it’s a small police department, they might not have someone available to show the photographs who does not know who the suspect is. In that case, the DoJ recommends that the officer be “blinded,” where the officer doesn’t know which photograph the eyewitness is looking at any given time. Even better, the DoJ suggests having the photographs presented on a computer screen so no one else needs to be present.

Another DoJ recommendation is that eyewitnesses, after identifying a photograph as that of the perpetrator, make a rating of confidence in their own words. “[N]ew research finds that a witness’s confidence at the time of an initial identification is a reliable indicator of accuracy.” Ask students, given what they now know about memory construction, what they would think if they were on a jury and the witness’s confidence at initial identification was very low but when on the witness stand during the trial was very high.

Whatever procedures a law enforcement department uses, the DoJ recommends video recording the process. That’s the best proof that the eyewitness’ memory was not inadvertently (or intentionally) contaminated.

If time allows, after discussing memory but before discussing the guidelines yourself, invite students to create them. With students working in small groups, ask students to create recommendations to law enforcement regarding the showing of suspect photographs to eyewitnesses. What recommendations do students have for how the photos should be displayed and what the officer showing the photographs should do or not do?

After discussion dies down, ask volunteers to share the recommendations from their groups with rationales. And then highlight for students some of the DoJ recommendations.

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About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.