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President's Message

Our Recommitment to Addressing Wrongful Convictions

Walter A. McNeil, Chief of Police, Quincy Police Department, Quincy, Florida

n my inaugural remarks at IACP 2011 in Chicago, Illinois, I spoke about this year being a time for collective recommitment to our continuing mission of advancing police services and encouraging police personnel worldwide to achieve and maintain the highest standards of ethics, integrity, community interaction, and professional conduct. This is about our vision to enhance our role as the established voice of professional law enforcement throughout the world. This is about continuing to build upon our vision to be an effective force to serve our profession with public safety research, education, training, and administration.

As such, as part of this year’s agenda and my tenure as your president, the IACP has been focusing on many issues important and relevant to the modern law enforcement community. One of those issues is our resolute determination to engage in a national discussion on wrongful convictions. The IACP has always been an association that serves as a guidepost on issues some would rather not attempt to address. Wrongful convictions appear to be such an issue. But, as leaders of the IACP, we will remain true to our heritage, true to our mission, and true to the people we serve.

Over 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. And, the damage goes beyond the wrongfully convicted citizen; it hurts all those involved in the case, including law enforcement and prosecutorial staff, families of the wrongfully accused, the victim of the original crime in question, and the public at large when justice is not carried out and the true guilty individual is not arrested and punished.

Progress has been made in addressing the wrongful arrest, prosecution, and conviction problem over the past several years, including through increased use of DNA evidence and increased DNA laboratory resources to aid in the exoneration of those wrongfully convicted, support for reopening cases by law enforcement and prosecutors to address new evidence, improvement in best practices in major crimes investigations by state and local law enforcement, and funding for more research to support evidence-based practices.

Even with this progress, wrongful convictions still occur. The most successful long-term and lasting solution to this issue is one that looks closely at the front-end justice system, specifically arrest and prosecution. From the beginning, my goal has been to plan, convene, and report out on a national summit on wrongful convictions and the leadership role of law enforcement in addressing this issue.

That is why, last month, I convened an ad hoc committee to begin planning a summit on wrongful convictions to build on the work the IACP has previously done on this topic. I am pleased to report to you that we had a successful meeting and will be holding a summit in August this year. The summit will look at how we can improve our processes and operations on a wide range of issues, from the sciences we use today to photographic lineups to eyewitness testimony to investigative techniques. Summit participants will include forensic experts, experts in investigations and the courts, and district attorneys. The summit is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), and we thank the BJA, the National Institute of Justice, and the Office for Victims of Crime for their support.

The objective of the summit will be to develop a set of policy recommendations that will increase the capacity of police, working closely with the community and other justice components, to reduce wrongful arrest, prosecution, and conviction. Our intent is to prepare law enforcement leaders at the federal, state, local, and tribal levels—using the results of the summit—to provide clear guidance to their officers, enhance community trust, build strong relationships with prosecutorial partners, and maximize departmental access to cutting-edge investigative technology to maximum investigative accuracy.

I believe that we, as law enforcement officials, play a strong leadership role in preventing wrongful convictions, with the goal of providing a set of tools that will enhance the capacity of front-end justice personnel to reduce errors in arrest and prosecution.

The IACP believes that the best law enforcement approach to reducing wrongful arrests is a well-designed policing strategy that builds the kind of police-community bonds that create mutual trust and respect, resulting in the capacity of the police to gain maximum intelligence and information from the citizens they serve as they investigate serious crimes. This belief will serve as a foundation for all proposed activities.

It is clear that law enforcement must play a leadership role in redefining front-end enforcement investigation and arrest practices to achieve the goal of reducing the incarceration of those wrongfully convicted. I believe that our work will complement work that others have done and are doing and will help advance all these efforts. A focus on the conviction part of the process tends to remove police and prosecutors from the equation. I view the issue systemically, believing that core changes in police investigative approaches, in collaboration with the communities they serve, will have a profound influence on reducing wrongful arrests leading to prosecutions and wrongful convictions. ♦

Please cite as:

Walter A. McNeil, "Our Recommitment to Addressing Wrongful Convictions," President’s Message, The Police Chief 79 (June 2012): 6.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXIX, no. 6, June 2012. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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