Craig T. Steckler, Chief of Police, Fremont, California, Police Department
ver the past decade, the issue of wrongful convictions has been identified as a critical problem in the U.S. justice system. While a very small percentage of all convictions are in fact wrongful, the damage to those wrongly accused, convicted, and incarcerated is irreversible. In fact, after a number of IACP’s committees had studied the issue for years, in 2008 the IACP membership adopted a resolution calling for greater research into the issue of wrongful convictions.
Clearly everyone wants to see the right person brought to justice, and no one wants to be a part of a failed effort that sends the wrong person to prison. Still, even with the best of intentions, wrongful arrests, prosecutions, and convictions occur. And they have a profoundly damaging impact on everyone—from the innocent person convicted, to the victim, the communities at large, law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and juries. The only person immune to this damage is the actual offender who remains unaccountable and at-large, free to commit new crimes and create new victims.
It is for these reasons that last year, under the leadership of Past President Walter McNeil, the IACP held a national policy summit on wrongful convictions. Building upon the work of IACP Police Investigative Operations; Forensic Science Committee; Police Professional Standards, Image, and Ethics Committee; and the Research Advisory Committee, the summit was designed to develop a set of policy recommendations that would increase the capability of police, working closely with the community and other justice components, to eliminate wrongful arrest, prosecution, and conviction.
Research tells us that a myriad of missteps and inaccuracies lead to wrongful arrest, prosecution, and conviction, not just one person or one action. The IACP Wrongful Convictions Summit brought together practitioners and experts from around the country and challenged them to create a blueprint to reduce wrongful convictions in the United States.
IACP convened the Wrongful Convictions Summit in Alexandria, Virginia, with the support of the Office of Justice Programs (OJP), and with funding support from both the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). The goal of the summit was to examine the issues surrounding wrongful arrest, prosecution, and conviction and, most importantly, develop a set of agreed-upon recommendations for law enforcement leaders and their justice system colleagues to evaluate and implement.
More than 75 subject matter experts from law enforcement, the justice system, and the community participated in the summit. After brief opening remarks and a plenary panel on the issue, participants were divided into four working groups: Making rightful arrests; correcting wrongful arrests; technology and forensic issues; and reexamining closed cases. Each working group was charged with developing a set of policy recommendations to address these for core issue areas.
The over-riding issue of note at the summit was the need for all justice system agencies to be open to new information—at any point in the investigation, arrest, prosecution, and trial of a suspect. All too often when new information has come forward that could indicate the need for redirection, justice system officials across the continuum have met that information with resistance and disregard. Changing the justice culture to one of openness to new information from reliable sources was seen as a key to addressing and reducing wrongful convictions.
While agreeing that wrongful conviction is a systemic issue requiring a broad set of cross-system recommendations, participants quickly focused on the front-end leadership role of law enforcement. They called for a fresh look at law enforcement investigative processes, policies, and culture. Pointing out the critical role of the police in preventing a wrongful arrest, they saw the need for a change in the investigative climate that would welcome greater assessment and oversight; be open to new information regardless of its “fit” with current case information; ensure that proper protocols—best practices—are in place and utilized; foster more frequent and improved training for investigators; and promote a collective ownership approach to cases versus the current narrow model where one or two investigators have complete responsible for review, analysis, and case direction.
Participants were firm in their beliefs that at the point a suspect is arrested, everyone in the department—the chief, command staff, investigative staff, forensic and crime analysts, and all others—must have high degree of confidence that the right individual has been arrested and charged. The responsibility to reduce and correct wrongful arrests, prosecutions, and convictions belongs to the entire justice system, and law enforcement should take a prominent role in leading the change, through policy and practice, at the front end of the system.
In the end, the summit participants adopted a systemic view of the problem and focused on policy areas across the justice system where improvement is most likely to yield measureable benefit. And as noted, they consistently cast law enforcement in a critical leadership role, setting best practice investigative approaches that can influence improvement across the justice system.
The full summit report is currently in the final stages of review and is expected to be released shortly.
The results of the summit will help law enforcement leaders at the federal, state, local, and tribal levels to provide clear guidance to their officers, enhance community trust, and build strong relationships with prosecutorial partners. I am confident that these efforts will have a profound influence on reducing wrongful arrests leading to prosecutions and wrongful convictions.♦
Please cite as:
Craig T. Steckler, "IACP Summit on Wrongful Convictions," President’s Message, The Police Chief 80 (April 2013): 6.