My search as a cop for justice in a flawed criminal system
A faulty reliance on eyewitnesses and shoddy science at police departments across the states, from the LAPD to the NYPD, can have tragic consequences.
Thirteen years ago, in a fit of idealism, I left my comfortable career as a scientist and joined the Los Angeles Police Department.Skip to next paragraph
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Like most of the academics, I believed that the police were corrupt. I wanted to learn the reality of policing and to serve as a model for positive change. When I started, major scandals in the LAPD were breaking out. Officers were allegedly involved in the murder of rapper Notorious B.I.G., providing protection to criminal rap artists, and the Rampart scandal had tarnished the image of the world-famous police agency once again.
The LAPD was in transformation. Chief Bernard Parks had terrified the entire LAPD with his heavy-handed disciplinary system; cops were leaving the department in droves.
Though suspicious, I found that the majority of officers were professional and honorable. True criminal cops, like Rafael Perez and David Mack, were the rarity. More prevalent was misconduct that was based on laziness and cutting corners, not with a criminal intent, but with a "the ends justify the means" mentality.
The major shortcoming in policing was something far more dangerous and something that has not been addressed seriously by our criminal justice system. Major harm could result from our reliance on two very fallible tools: eyewitnesses and shoddy forensic science.
Consider a recent example: On Feb. 17, 2004, Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham for the arson deaths of his three daughters. In September, an investigative article in The New Yorker revealed that Mr. Willingham was innocent. It sparked a series of investigations that found he was the victim of shoddy crime scene investigation and outdated theories.
The tragic miscarriage of justice in Willingham's case is not isolated. Many harrowing tales exist: Frank Lee Smith spent 14 years on Florida's death row and was exonerated as a result of DNA testing 10 months after he died awaiting execution.
The number of postconviction DNA exonerations in the US is more than 200. Since 1973, the US has released 135 people from death row due to DNA exonerations. Some were convicted due to mistaken eyewitnesses, others due to police and prosecutorial zeal and misconduct.
People, especially in law enforcement, have a hard time comprehending such stories. Don't we live in a free society where criminals have too many rights and the police's hands are tied up by too many regulations? Every cop knows at least a few criminals who walk around free because we can't charge or convict them.
Yet innocent people are railroaded through our "justice" system, all the way to lethal injections and the electric chair. Why?
The answer lies both in our human and institutional natures. As humans, we tend to believe whatever fits our self-interest, discarding facts that tend to challenge our hypotheses. The errors of deduction can therefore multiply in an investigation when shoddy science is applied or where we rely solely on eyewitnesses. As Willingham's case demonstrates, the combination can be fatal.
Early in my career, my training officer and I responded to an attempted murder investigation. The victim was shot from close range. Thankfully the shooter missed the intended target's vitals and only managed to hit the victim's biceps.