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The potential for bias in police lineups

On Behalf of | Apr 28, 2023 | Criminal Defense

The Georgia criminal justice system aims to provide fair and just treatment to all individuals. Law enforcement commonly uses police lineups to identify suspects, but some criticize them and claim that the lineups have an inherent bias. Lineups usually consist of photographs, side by side, rather than live individuals in a room.

Police may use foils or pictures of people who look similar to the suspect to control bias. The lineup might not even include the suspect to control the lineup for false-positive identifications. However, even with these techniques, bias can still exist in lineups in a few different ways. Police are working with a few additional methods to reduce bias in police lineups further.

Presence of a known suspect

If a known suspect is one of the individuals in a lineup, an eyewitness might be more likely to identify them as the perpetrator. Even if the individual is innocent and may not even match the initial description provided by the eyewitness, their status as a known suspect can bias the eyewitness. In the criminal defense court, a biased eyewitness can make defending an innocent person much more difficult.

Suggestive behaviors

Police officers and other law enforcement individuals may use suggestive language unintentionally while conducting a lineup or will look at the suspect much more often than at the other individuals. An officer might ask the eyewitness leading questions that imply a specific lineup member is a suspect. An eyewitness can pick up on this or see which photo the officer looks at the most and make a biased identification based on the officer’s behaviors.

Faulty lineup design

If police use photos of lineup members who look significantly different than the suspect, they can unknowingly introduce bias. Studies have shown that if someone sees that one police lineup member is of a different race than the others they are more likely to identify that person as the suspect.

Other appearance biases can affect the opinion of the eyewitness, such as photographs of some lineup members in prison outfits. If the suspect has a heavy beard, and other lineup members have minimal goatees, the eyewitness may choose the bearded person simply because they stand out. These types of bias can lead to wrongfully convicting innocent people and present a significant issue in the criminal justice system.

Reducing bias

Law enforcement can take steps to help reduce or eliminate bias in lineups through procedures such as sequential lineups and proper training. A sequential lineup presents a photograph of each lineup member, one at a time, to the eyewitness. This technique helps the eyewitness focus on each individual and can decrease the chance of bias while increasing the potential for accurate identification.

Training officers on procedures such as designing better lineups and using sequential lineups and tactics such as avoiding bias-inducing behaviors can help ensure that police lineups are conducted accurately and fairly, with a reduced potential for wrongful identification and conviction.