Q&A with Kim Rossmo
By Audrey Webb, University Marketing
To err, as the saying goes, is human. Mistakes are just one of life’s inevitabilities. Depending on the circumstances, however, their effects can range from humorous to devastating. When human error occurs within the criminal justice system, it is typically the latter.
As a former detective inspector with the Vancouver Police Department, Texas State University professor Kim Rossmo has seen firsthand how erroneous thinking and flawed investigative techniques can affect the outcome of a case. Errors may lead to wrongful convictions, robbing innocent people of years of their life. They also can result in cold cases — unsolved crimes that stymy detectives for years, even decades — and create chaos and tension within our communities.
It is impossible to eliminate human error from creeping into the justice system, but being aware of the causes of error can reduce the negative effects. Rossmo’s research examines the myriad ways that mistakes can be made in criminal cases — not only by members of police departments, but also by eyewitnesses, forensic scientists, lawyers — anyone connected to the outcome of an investigation. What he has learned helps not only those who work within the criminal justice system, but the rest of us as well — because in one way or another, the criminal justice system affects us all.
In addition to your book, you’ve written numerous articles on the subject of criminal investigative failures, which places you in high demand for presentations to law enforcement agencies around the world. How have your findings been received?
When I give a presentation to a police audience, there’s usually a large degree of acceptance of these ideas, especially among experienced detectives. They’ve been around long enough to know these things happen. We should remember this isn’t a particular vulnerability of detectives. This is a human vulnerability. It applies to scientists, engineers, politicians, military generals — I just point out that these are some of the issues with how the human brain works. It’s only through an understanding of our weaknesses and fallibilities that we can try to avoid them and make sure we don’t fall prey to problems and traps that affect our thinking.
Why is a better understanding of the criminal justice system important to the average citizen?
The criminal investigative function is a very important part of our social order. It affects our understanding of justice and what we can do as a group within our urban and rural communities. I think it’s important for us to recognize that justice does not just happen — that there are a number of processes and procedures that have to be followed correctly if we are going to get justice. People should be engaged. They should understand what the issues are. They should expect and they should demand the highest level of professionalism by police and prosecutors, but also recognize that failures and mistakes do happen. If people realize that sometimes the system gets it wrong, then maybe the system might be more open when errors are made. If we live in a world of fictional expectations — one that’s generated from Hollywood depictions — we are not going to get what we need from our criminal justice system.
Speaking of Hollywood, crime shows are an immensely popular form of entertainment. In real life, generally, cases aren’t solved within the hour. How does the depiction of police work in the media distort the public’s view of how crimes get solved?
One of the problems with depictions of crime and policing in television and movies is that there is often too much certainty. In the real world, witnesses don’t see everything. Some forensic techniques — for example, blood spatter analysis or bite marks — are not all that scientific. Certainty rarely exists in an actual criminal investigation. Every type of evidence has an error associated with it. A truly sophisticated investigative approach must recognize the potential for error and work within the limitations of the evidence when determining what happened in a crime. Simplistic entertainment sound bites distort the process.
There’s an enormous human cost associated with wrongful convictions. Spending years behind bars negatively affects not only the innocent individual, but also their entire family. How else do wrongful convictions negatively affect our society?
The economic impacts of wrongful convictions are significant. First of all, there’s the fact that there can be many appeals, which are often publically funded. Compensation has to be paid — sometimes millions of dollars — to an individual who is wrongfully incarcerated. There can be civil lawsuits. There’s also the fact that investigators can waste scarce resources by spinning their wheels pursuing the wrong direction in a case. The same problems can happen with an unsolved case. The costs of crime are significant. A little prevention can save us an awful lot of money by avoiding problems before they erupt.
Texas has the highest number of exonerations in the United States. What factors do you believe contribute to this statistic?
There are probably several reasons. First, we are the second most populous state in the country. Second, there is a strong sense of justice in Texas communities and that’s a good thing. Some places, such as Dallas, have done a good job of retaining physical evidence in old cases. If the evidence in a case has been properly preserved, you can determine that a wrongful conviction has occurred, even years later. It’s also encouraging to see a number of initiatives by both federal and state governments to try to determine what’s gone wrong and how to prevent these types of miscarriages of justice in the future.
What sort of improvements have been implemented recently?
The way police conduct eyewitness identifications has changed significantly. For example, the Austin Police Department recently adopted double-blind sequential suspect lineups procedures, abandoning the old simultaneous lineups we are all familiar with from the movies. Lineup administrators are not told who the suspect is, eliminating the possibility of inadvertent or intentional witness influences. There is also now recognition of the importance of recording interviews of offenders so the courts can determine if a confession is legitimate.
Are there other improvements you’d like to see added?
There is a need for independent, outside agency reviews on problematic cases. If a murder remains unsolved after one year in England, the case is reviewed by a detective from a different police agency. Peer review is standard in science but it is unusual in law enforcement. I’d like to see something like that initiated in Texas — a standard procedure where investigators can trade cases and obtain external, unbiased reviews — an outside second opinion.
Errors are going to occur. We have to accept that, be prepared and be self-critical. When police agencies or prosecutors’ offices close ranks and mindlessly defend their investigations, we’re not getting the justice we deserve. As Thomas Jefferson said, “It is more honorable to repair a wrong than to persist in it.”