Bias training often isn’t enough to eliminate police and prosecutor misconduct that can put innocent people in jail, says a Stanford University psychology professor.
More proactive efforts such as explicitly telling eyewitnesses at a police lineup that a perpetrator may not be present opens up the possibility that you can’t identify any of the individuals, said Jennifer Eberhardt.
“One of the ways to correct biases is not simply through a bias training,” she told a recent panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “It’s trying to understand what practices or what policies might be driving the disparity.”
Police, prosecutors and jurors are all subject to confirmation bias, she noted.
Jurors will trust DNA evidence, but will trust a prosecutor telling the jury a specific story even over clear DNA evidence, she said.
“Bias isn’t just applied to people, but can affect how we see objects and places and all kinds of things,” said Eberhardt, whose research has focused on police bias in particular.
She has completed social psychological studies to answer questions such as “can race play a role in how quickly police officers see weapons”? and associations between words like arrest, capture, shoot and apprehend with race.
Eberhardt also worked to change policies requiring police officers to handcuff anyone they stopped who was on probation or parole. Those policies led to a disproportionate number of black men in handcuffs, Eberhardt said.
She said she wanted to look at to what extent race can change what we see in the world. She found people see weapons more quickly when the individual is black than when the individual is white.
She offered ideas of practical changes police and prosecutors can take to avoid bias in evidence collection.
Throughout the process “you resolve the ambiguity in the direction of consistency with the overall story, with the overall narrative,” Eberhardt said.
Nevertheless, confirmation basis is a key contributing factor in wrongful convictions. In a forthcoming study of 50 exonerations, two Texas State University professors found that errors or misteps in procedure were compounded when police and prosecutors failed to look at evidence that didn’t confirm what they already believed about a case.
Another speaker at the panel, Emily Bazelon , a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, said DNA testing is not always sufficient to counteract the effects of both unconscious and conscious bias in the justice system.
She told the story of Noura Jackson, whose mom was brutally stabbed to death when Noura was 18.
Bazelon said there was copious DNA evidence and, at the start, there were no obvious suspects. Eventually the DNA evidence excluded Jackson from the crime, but the police and prosecutors didn’t look for anyone else.
Jackson served nine years in prison before her sentence was overturned.
On the prosecutorial side, Bazelon pointed to reforms to help combat bias, such as changing “blindfold laws” to keep checks on prosecutors, who often have a lot of power because they have no legal immunity for decisions they make and can’t be sued.
“People who wield huge amounts of power have to have checks on that power,” Bazelon said. Prosecutors often can’t concede lack of guilt, even when concrete evidence points to another perpetrator.
Since the first DNA exoneration in 1989, 365 individuals have been exonerated through DNA evidence in the United States. Sixty-nine percent of those cases involved eyewitness misidentification and 42 percent of those cases were cross-racial misidentification, according to the Innocence Project.
Lauren Sonnenberg is a contributing writer to The Crime Report.