April 21, 2014  

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Southern Miss Professor Assists Houston Police with Eyewitness Research

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Dr. Thomas Payne

Dr. Thomas Payne, associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice at The University of Southern Mississippi, has consulted with the Houston (Texas) Police Department on groundbreaking research into the best methods for conducting eyewitness lineups.

Payne spent the better part of the previous year working with Sgt. Stephen Morrison to design a survey instrument that would facilitate the collection of facts and demographics related to the types of lineups used by police detectives. The objective is to ensure that the Houston Police Department employs the most impartial lineup procedure possible for eyewitness identification.

“No one wants to see any person wrongfully convicted,” said Morrison. “Over the past years there has been an effort to create public policy on how police investigators collect eyewitness evidence, with the belief that some of the error occurs in the method of collecting eyewitness evidence. The Houston Police is seeking to find a ‘best practice’ solution from this research.”

Most U.S. law enforcement agencies use the simultaneous lineup, in which the eyewitness views a lineup of individuals or a photo array; that is, all individuals are viewed at the same time. However, some research has indicated that a sequential lineup, in which photographs are presented to the witness one at a time, produces fewer false identifications as well as fewer true identifications.

Payne points out that no mock lineups were used as part of the Houston project. More than 1,000 surveys were conducted and analyzed.

“That is the beauty and value of field research,” he said. “We used actual cases of robbery and the victims or other eyewitnesses. In Houston the robbery division investigates over 700 armed robberies a month. So we had plenty of opportunities to gather real world data in real time. Gathering data on the run, and those results, gives us a better barometer of what works and does not work in terms of practical procedures in the street and/or station house.”

A former U.S. Attorney, Payne emphasized that the research would not be useful unless he and Morrison managed to design and field test a survey instrument that would reflect the most accurate and complete responses from the individuals taking the survey.

“Initially we had to make some adjustments to our survey instrument, but in the end we feel we did recover accurate and robust data surrounding the issue of eyewitness/lineup protocol,” he said.

Payne noted that the research is trending to show no significant difference between simultaneous lineups and blind sequential lineups. This represents a stark contradiction to the position taken by the Innocence Project, a national organization that has long contended that simultaneous lineups are inherently biased.

Morrison, who earned his doctorate in Administration of Justice at Southern Miss in 2006, called Payne’s contributions to the project “invaluable.” He points out that a second part of the study will begin in January of 2013.

“The second part will compare the ‘blind sequential’ method to the ‘blind simultaneous’ method and these two methods will be compared to the ‘non-blind simultaneous’ method used by the Houston Police Department,” said Morrison. “We are looking to determine of one method produces less false positives. We are also interested in determining if there is a loss in positive picks between methods.”

Payne suggests the data speaks for itself.

“We are searching for and believe we have found the best evidence-based procedure for controlling bias and ensuring the most effective and efficient eyewitness lineup procedures,” he said.