Police Investigative Misconduct Linked to One-Third of Wrongful Convictions

Police ethics codes mandate that investigations be impartial, fair, and honest. The International Association of Chiefs of Police, for example, states that “the overall intent of any investigation is to be fair, balanced, and thorough.”

But a report from the National Registry of Exonerations reveals that investigations often do not meet this standard. Based on a review of 2,400 exonerations, “Government Misconduct and Convicting the Innocent” found that 35% of all wrongful convictions involved  investigative misconduct. The misconduct falls into five categories (some cases fell into more than one category):

  1. Witness Tampering — 13% of wrongful convictions
    • Procuring false testimony — Inducing a civilian witness to testify to facts the officer knows the witness did not perceive (3% of wrongful convictions)
    • Tainted identifications – Deliberately inducing a witness to identify a suspect during a lineup, whether the witness recognizes that suspect or not (7% of wrongful convictions)
    • Improper questioning of a child victim – Repeated, insistent, and suggestive questioning of a child, precluding the child from denying that he or she was a victim of sex abuse (3% of wrongful convictions)
  1. Misconduct in Interrogations – 7% of wrongful convictions
    • Actual or threatened violence
    • Sham plea bargaining and other lies about the law
    • Threats to relatives and other third parties
  1. Fabricating Evidence – 10% of wrongful convictions
    • Fake crimes – Making false claims as ordinary lay witnesses, saying the defendant committed a crime that never happened, often involving the planting of contraband (5% of wrongful convictions)
    • Forensic fraud – Presenting false evidence against the defendant, concealing/distorting true evidence that might have cleared them, or planting false evidence (3% of wrongful convictions)
    • Fabricated confessions – Making up confessions by the defendants that in fact did not occur (2% of wrongful convictions)
  1. Concealing Exculpatory Evidence – 7% of wrongful convictions
    • Impeachment of prosecution witnesses:
      • Incentives provided to testify
      • Inconsistent statements
      • Criminal records and histories of dishonesty
    • Substantive evidence of innocence:
      • Forensic tests
      • Alternative suspects
      • Evidence that the defendant did not commit the crime
  1. Perjury at Trial – 13% of wrongful convictions
    • False statements about the conduct of investigations
    • False statements about witness statements

For murder cases, 78% of Black exonerees, compared to 64% of White exonerees, experienced official misconduct. The misconduct disparity was even greater for drug crimes: 47% among Blacks and 22% for Whites.

Prospects for the Future

In recent years, activists have been promoting the use of so-called “victim-centered” approaches, both in the criminal justice system and on college campuses. An announcement from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, for example, makes the claim that “victim-centered” approaches “can support victim recovery and engagement with the criminal justice system” and “promote enhanced victim and community safety while helping law enforcement solve and prevent crime.” Despite the feel-good aura of this gauzy description, the reality of “victim-centered” approaches is that they compromise investigative impartiality, bias evidence against the defendant, and predispose to wrongful convictions.

See CPI Letter dated January 28, 2021 urging the IACP to withdraw this announcement.