Thanks to Michael D. Ranalli, Chief of Police, Glenville, New York, Police Department for his insightful and important article that appears this month in The Police Chief (magazine) about how system failures lead to tunnel vision and wrongful convictions. Ranalli compares an officer who elicits a false confession from a suspect to an officer who is lax on the job and as a result gets physically beaten by a suspect. Both occur, says Rinalli, as a result of cutting corners and a lack of focus and vigilence. Some highlights:
Officers consciously or unconsciously need to come up with a theory of the case that makes sense. Once that is done, there can be a tendency to have tunnel vision. Other leads or avenues that do not fit into this theory may be ignored or are viewed in the light of confirmatory bias. In other words, the facts that fit the theory are accepted and followed up on, and the ones that do not confirm the theory are either dismissed or made to fit the theory. It is human nature for officers to apply their own knowledge and experience to the examination of the actions of others. For many officers, it would not make sense that a person would confess to something they did not do. From a police officer’s perspective, of course it would be hard to accept the concept of a false confession. The fact is, however, that the suspect is not a police officer, and people can and, under the right circumstances, will confess to crimes they did not commit. Does this mean that officers who elicit false confessions have done something wrong? The answer is, not necessarily. The same techniques that are successful in eliciting confessions from countless guilty persons can also lead to the occasional false confession. This could be because of the particular traits of the suspect as much as it could be potentially overly aggressive and exhaustive methods used by the investigator. Most modern interview and interrogation techniques are designed to try to reduce the likelihood of a false confession. The problem, however, may not be with how the technique is designed and taught. The problem may be how, over time, the technique is eventually administered by an officer in the field, whose “corners” may have eroded.
Similarly, officers might focus all their efforts exclusively toward a suspect who has been identified during some form of identification procedure, subscribing to the mind-set that if an eyewitness points to a suspect, then the suspect must be the person who committed the crime. The officers in this case would again be applying what makes sense to them. With proper training, officers would know that while many people accurately point out suspects in such situations, mistakes occasionally happen. The human power of perception is not perfect, and all humans are subject to making mistakes. The perception of a witness can be influenced by event stress, lighting, distance, and other factors.