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.
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 It sparked a series of investigations that found he was the victim of shoddy crime scene investigation and outdated theories.
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