Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Another viewpoint on Eyewitness Identification

(Observations in the "Presumed Innocent" series)

It is commonly stated that factors of "own-race bias" contribute to making identifications of persons of a different race among the most challenging for most "eye witnesses." And it does often seem that people of homogeneous backgrounds are most adept at identifying those features with which they are most familiar.

Some individuals may, however, due to larger, more cosmopolitan experience, or since they are artists, anthropologists, medical professionals, or similar, actually be quite skilled at distinguishing between facial and other features of various genetic heritage. Some others may have very-good, or eidetic-memory of features, characteristics, conversations, etc., but it is not the “norm” that someone so qualified will happen to be in the right place at the right time to contribute eye-witness information.

And there are other layers to the challenges of using serendipitously-involved “eye-witness” accounts.

Enforcement and court-based interactions between races which have remained otherwise only superficially integrated (if at all) also have some impact on emotional reactions and perceptions, on attitudes towards and displays of remorse (or not), and other cues missed due to intrinsic differences.

Working with people of many races and cultures, it becomes increasingly apparent that people of different inclusion-circles, heritage and inculcation respond differently. The affluent have a far different aplomb than the desperate. The “educated” (in whichever languages or rules and social mores) respond differently than the mis-informed, dis-informed, un-informed, fearful and/or distrusting.

For some cultures, it is shameful to display weakness, shameful to show dependence. What some might perceive to be a “stony-faced” reception to authority and/or criticism is merely the extreme self-control exerted to prevent any show of vulnerability, or, as importantly, to prevent any hint of challenge to the “authority” voicing the criticisms—a self-defeating effort in cultures which consider non-reaction to be a challenge in and of itself.

Further, relatively few people are trained, or instinctively capable of the degree of comprehension and empathy required to recognize detachment or even apparent hostility as masks assumed protectively and almost sub-consciously by survivors/victims of abuse, survivors of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), or many of the differently-abled.

Each of these conditions can be a double-edged sword: people so affected may not be able to recognize the layering they put on accounts for which they are attempting to process and deliver corroborating or disputing “eye witness” information. Their speech and emotional cues of delivery may be perceived as erratic, and they may be dismissed, discredited, or punished due to miss- and missed-communication.

Compounding these difficulties, some eyewitnesses may view others who are merely circumstantially co-located with an incident acting with apparent guilt or fear or other “inappropriate” and therefore distinguishing emotional response—calling these people to the forefront of memory, and obfuscating perceptions of an actual suspect or perpetrator, who, for any number of reasons, may be well-equipped to take advantage of distractions and fade away without distinction.

The differently-behaving individuals, so noticed, may actually, therefore, become suspect, possibly apprehended on suspicion, while merely exhibiting their own distress, detachment, or self-protective rituals or emotional cues in order to survive what they perceived to be a stressful or even threatening situation beyond their control—or a situation demanding their involvement. With their well-intentioned intervention regarded as culpability, many of these people, not comprehending missed-cues, and already seen as “out of sync” with “the norm” become, and often remain, unable to defend themselves against wrongful treatment, wrongful charges, convictions, punishment.

And maybe all they had hoped to do was assist someone in distress and serve as an eyewitness themselves, out of a sense of duty to the society in which they co-exist.

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