In a small room at police headquarters in Dallas, Texas, a police officer and the eyewitness to a minor crime recently sat down together to consider six photographs in a photo lineup.
Eyewitness identifications like this happen every day in America, and on the surface, it is a straight-forward transaction. The witness looks at the pictures. The witness picks a person from the photos. Or the witness doesn't.
But for decades, psychological scientists have worried that the traditional way police departments have conducted these photo lineups was flawed, and was landing many innocent people in jail. There was a better way, they argued, and police departments needed to change.
Last month, the state of Texas joined nine other states and passed a measure that requires police departments across the state to review their eyewitness procedures. The law suggests that departments seriously consider the kinds of research-based reforms that psychological scientists have been talking about for years. This move by Texas — a strong law and order state — suggests the science of the lineup is steadily making its way out of the lab and moving to a police station near you.
A Subtle Emotional Dance
In the Dallas investigation room, the police officer and the eyewitness sit across the table from one another.
If you were present in this room, their conversation would look totally innocuous: You would see a witness reviewing the pictures and steadily making decisions.
But in fact, psychologists say, the officer and the witness are engaged in an incredibly subtle emotional dance, moving together and apart in ways that neither are fully aware of.
"Is this the person?" the officer asks of the first photograph.
"That's a maybe," the witness replies clearly.
"A not sure?" the officer repeats, questioning.
"It's a maybe," the witness says again, this time less certain.
"Yes. No. Or not sure?" the officer says again.
And as the officer repeats his question for the third time, it's possible to hear the witness quaver. There is a long pause as the witness reconsiders his answer.
Small Changes In Posture And Speech
It's impossible to know exactly what is passing between these two men in this room. Perhaps there was a slight shift in the officer's posture, a subtle relaxing which communicated to the witness that the officer wasn't so interested.
And perhaps that relaxed posture cued the witness on some deep level that the person in the picture was not the real suspect. But suddenly the witness seems to find his footing again.
"A 'not sure' is a maybe," he repeats, this time definitively. He has made a decision.
Small changes like this — in posture, in speech — can change what a witness sees in a photograph. They can transform someone who was just another face into a criminal suspect. And vice versa: a criminal suspect can become into just another face.
"We look for cues in our environment to decide what's an appropriate answer — what's an appropriate response. That's human nature," says Gary Wells, a psychologist at Iowa State University who studies police lineups.
By staging crimes and analyzing the way that his witnesses pick out his suspects, Wells has uncovered all kinds of things about lineups that were previously hidden. This work has led Wells and other researchers to suggest a series of reforms.
For example, one reform Wells suggests is that the officer conducting the lineup should not know which person in it is the actual suspect. Otherwise, Wells says, that officer will unconsciously communicate to the witness who the suspect is.
"It's just not really possible for people who know an answer to perform these kinds of tasks in a totally neutral way," says Wells.
Researchers like Wells also argue that witnesses should be told before viewing the lineup that the actual criminal might not be present. According to research, including that simple caveat will change the rate at which people are picked from lineups.
Finally, Wells says, instead of showing the pictures all at once — which encourages the witness to compare the people in the lineup with each other — photos should be shown one at a time, because doing it that way encourages people to compare the person they're looking at with the person they have in their head, which seems to result in fewer innocent people getting picked.
The Case Of Dallas
Dallas officially adopted lineup reforms two years ago. According to Lieutenant David Pughes, who oversaw the change, the reforms represented an enormous leap for the department.
"It was probably the biggest changed that our investigative bureau had seen since the Miranda warning," Pughes says.
And, says Pughes, this change wasn't exactly welcomed by the officers on the force.
"We had a lot of skeptics," Pughes says. The officers felt "that the way they were doing it was fine. You know, that there was no way that there were influencing anybody during these eyewitness identification procedures, they were just presenting the photos. And frankly, a lot of the detectives felt like the change of the procedures was almost a question of their integrity."
Today about 25 percent of police departments nationwide have, like Dallas, reformed their photo lineups. This represents an enormous change from nine years ago, when that number was basically zero; even so, the vast majority of police departments have yet to switch procedures.
So how are the reforms working?
"We don't know the answer to that," says Gary Wells. "There have not been good studies of before versus after these reforms."
In fact, in the last 10 years there's been only one study of how the reforms affect witness selection on the ground, and that study has been widely criticized by researchers.
But Pughes feels confident that fewer innocent people are being picked out of photo lineups. In fact, he says, the reforms have radically changed the whole way that Dallas police think about eyewitness testimony.
"We are very much more critical about conducting a photo lineup," Pughes says. "We don't just say, 'OK, they pointed to this picture - this is the person that did it, so we're going to put them in jail.'"
Pughes says for most of his career, that was how it was done. But his confidence in the old ways has evaporated. Eyewitness testimony, Pughes says, is just not what it appeared to be.
Copyright 2011 National Public Radio.