City police planning new suspect identification process

Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said Thursday that he is planning to change the way police get eyewitnesses to pick out suspects, citing research that shows current techniques can lead to cases of mistaken identity.

Batts said he wants officers to show witnesses one picture of a possible suspect at a time, instead of in groups. He said the change, along with a few others. could significantly improve the reliability of the identifications that police use to make their cases.

"What I'm going to introduce to the Baltimore Police Department … is to continue to bring cameras into interview rooms and make sure that we document and we record those interviews so there's no mistakes there," Batts said.

Batts made the comments while participating in a panel discussion at the University of Baltimore Law School with his predecessor Frederick H. Bealefeld III and State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein.

Bernstein said eyewitness testimony is a powerful element at trial, which is why it is so important that investigators get the initial identification right.

Identification policies have changed over the years. Bealefeld said in the 1980s officers were drafted to participate in live lineups — a practice police here have abandoned.

Witnesses in Baltimore are shown a group of pictures, known as a "six pack", containing the suspect and five other people, and asked to pick out the person they believe committed the crime.

But Rebecca Brown, a policy advocate at the Innocence Project, said police practices have not kept up with research that shows witnesses make more reliable picks if they are shown the pictures one after another, rather than all at once.

Police and prosecutors have not always seen eye-to-eye on how identifications will stand up in court. Col. Dean Palmere, Baltimore's chief of detectives, said at a recent City Hall hearing that he had met with prosecutors to get authorization on four cases that police wanted to move on.

Bernstein said in an interview that his office recently indicted a homicide case involving a single witness. He declined to name the defendant, and his spokesman Mark Cheshire said that's because he is personally involved in the case and does not want to prejudice it.

During the panel, Bernstein said prosecutors have to be careful about how they approach cases with just a single eyewitness.

"If you have a case in which your only evidence … is one witness identifying a stranger … I think you have to be very very careful about that kind of case," he said. "When you have that kind of situation … you need to really look hard and make sure you have corroborating evidence."

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

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