Colloff et al. in Psychological Science. 2016.
Colloff et al. in Psychological Science. 2016.

How Unfair Police Lineups Land the Wrong People Behind Bars

Colloff et al. in Psychological Science. 2016.
Colloff et al. in Psychological Science. 2016.

Our lives are shaped by myriad invisible forces, from gravity and magnetism to our own subconscious biases. They’re also shaped, often undetectably, by the thoughts and behaviors of the people around us. For example: Researchers say eyewitnesses shown unfair lineups are more likely to choose the person police want them to choose, even when that person is innocent. The research was published in the journal Psychological Science. 

Gone are the days of old-fashioned police lineups, in which a single suspect and a handful of decoys would shuffle into a room and glower straight ahead, left, and right. Today’s witnesses are seated not before one-way mirrors but at computers displaying the mug shots of potential culprits. One of the photos contains the police's prime suspect, who may or may not be the person the eyewitness saw. The other photo subjects are innocent. Will the eyewitness be able to pick the right person? That depends on a few things: their memory, the presence of the culprit in the lineup, and whether or not the police want them to.

Studies have shown that a witness is more likely to select the photo of a person with a distinguishing characteristic if they’re the only one with that feature. Consequently, police can pretty easily and consistently nudge witnesses to pick their bearded prime suspect by including them, beard and all, in an array of beardless decoys. For obvious reasons, this is called an unfair lineup, and it can help send the wrong person to prison.

Researchers at the University of Warwick and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice wanted to take a closer look at the psychology of these unfair lineups. They created four 30-second videos. Each video depicted a white man with some distinguishing feature committing a different crime (carjacking, graffiti, mugging, and theft). 

A test audience watched the videos over and over and answered questions about the culprit’s sex, hair color, eye color, weight, and so on. The responses for each culprit were averaged into a single description. Next, the researchers pulled 160 real mug shots matching these descriptions from the Florida Department of Corrections Inmate Database—40 images per culprit. Within the context of this experiment, all of these men were innocent. Their photos would become the decoys, or foils. All of the photos, including those of the culprits, were Photoshopped to show the men wearing plain black t-shirts. 

The researchers recruited almost 9000 people online for a study that they said was about personality and perception (psychology studies frequently misdirect participants’ attention in order to get the most natural responses). Each participant was told to watch one of the four crime videos. Afterward, they completed three psychological questionnaires and a word puzzle. The test results themselves were busy work; the researchers just wanted to keep the participants busy for a few minutes to create a break between the ‘crime’ and the lineup. 

The participants were asked how confident they were in their ability to pick the culprit out of a lineup. Then the lineup itself began. 

Each participant was shown six photos: the culprit and five foils. Some of the lineups were unfair and included the culprit, complete with a distinguishing mark, and five blank-faced foils. In others, the fair lineups, all six photos had been digitally manipulated to look the same way. Some people saw six men with black eyes or beards. Others saw six photos with pixelated blurs or black boxes covering what would have been a distinguishing feature. (These are all techniques used by real police departments in England and Wales.) 

Then there were the people whose lineups were completely culprit-free. Like the culprit groups, some of these all-decoy arrays were unfair, showing five plain photos and one person with distinguishing features. The difference was that all of these men were innocent. 

Once in front of the photo array, the participants were told that the culprit might or might not have been present. They then selected the person they believed to be their culprit, or “Not Present” if they felt the criminal’s photo was missing. Finally, they were asked again how confident they felt in their choices.  

Unsurprisingly, the authors say, unfair lineups were very effective at getting witnesses to select the desired target. But they were also good at encouraging people to feel good about blaming innocent men; the volunteers shown unfair lineups were more confident than others, even when they were wrong. 

University of Warwick researcher Melissa Colloff is lead author on the study. She says an unfair lineup is unfair not only to suspects but also to witnesses. “It could impair their ability to distinguish between guilty and innocent suspects and distort their ability to judge the trustworthiness of their identification decision," she said in a press statement. 

“That's because they weren't really using their memory of the culprit's face,” she said. They were remembering the beard, or the scar, or the black eye. If a witness goes to a police station and says they saw a crime perpetrated by a person with a beard, the police may begin to suspect a person with a beard, even if that person is innocent. And if that person becomes a prime suspect and is included in an unfair lineup, the same witness might quite confidently say, “Yes, Officer. That’s him.” 

The authors suggest two techniques for correcting the issue. First, they say, police should encourage witnesses to take their time and not answer until they’re sure. Second, of course, they should give witnesses a real chance to identify not just the suspect in a crime, but its culprit.  

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Why an Ex-FBI Agent Recommends Wrapping Your Keys in Tinfoil Whenever You Leave Your Car
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A car thief doesn't need to get their hands on your keys to break into your vehicle. If you use a wireless, keyless system, or fob, to unlock your car, all they need to do is steal the signal it emits. Luckily there's a tool you can use to protect your fob from hackers that you may already have in your kitchen at home: tinfoil.

Speaking with USA Today, retired FBI agent Holly Hubert said that wrapping car fobs in a layer of foil is the cheapest way to block their sensitive information from anyone who may be trying to access it. Hackers can easily infiltrate your car by using a device to amplify the fob signal or by copying the code it uses. And they don't even need to be in the same room as you to do it: They can hack the fob inside your pocket from the street outside your house or office.

Electronic car theft is a growing problem for automobile manufacturers. Ideally fobs made in the future will come with cyber protection built-in, but until then the best way to keep your car safe is to carry your fob in an electromagnetic field-blocking shield when you go out. Bags made specifically to protect your key fob work better than foil, but they can cost more than $50. If tinfoil is all you can afford, it's better than nothing.

At home, make sure to store your keys in a spot where they will continue to get protection. Dropping them in a metal coffee can is a lot smarter than leaving them out in the open on your kitchen counter.

[h/t USA Today]

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Why Are Mugshots Made Public Before a Suspect is Convicted by the Court?
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Jennifer Ellis:

Several reasons.

1. Mugshots can help find people when they have absconded, or warn people when someone is out and dangerous. So there is a good reason to share some mugshots.

2. Our legal system requires openness as per the federal constitution, and I imagine most if not all state constitutions. As such, this sort of information is not considered private and can be shared. Any effort to keep mugshots private would result in lawsuits by the press and lay people. This would be under the First and Sixth Amendments as well as the various Freedom of Information Acts. However, in 2016 a federal court ruled [PDF] that federal mugshots are no longer routinely available under the federal FOIA.

This is partially in recognition of the damage that mugshots can do online. In its opinion, the court noted that “[a] disclosed booking photo casts a long, damaging shadow over the depicted individual.” The court specifically mentions websites that put mugshots online, in its analysis. “In fact, mugshot websites collect and display booking photos from decades-old arrests: BustedMugshots and JustMugshots, to name a couple.” Some states have passed or are looking to pass laws to prevent release of mugshots prior to conviction. New Jersey is one example.

a) As the federal court recognizes, and as we all know, the reality is that if your picture in a mugshot is out there, regardless of whether you were convicted, it can have an unfortunate impact on your life. In the old days, this wasn’t too much of a problem because it really wasn’t easy to find mugshots. Now, with companies allegedly seeking to extort people into paying to get their images off the web, it has become a serious problem. Those companies may get in trouble if it can be proved that they are working in concert, getting paid to take the picture off one site and then putting it on another. But that is rare. In most cases, the picture is just public data to which there is no right of privacy under the law.

b) The underlying purpose of publicity is to avoid the government charging people and abusing the authority to do so. It was believed that the publicity would help protect people. And it does when you have a country that likes to hide what it is up to. But, it also can cause harm in a modern society like ours, where such things end up on the web and can cause permanent damage. Unfortunately, it is a bit of a catch-22. We have the right to know issues and free speech rights smack up against privacy rights and serious damage of reputation for people who have not been convicted of a crime. The law will no doubt continue to shake out over the next few years as it struggles to catch up with the technology.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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