In his 30-year career in law enforcement in both the military and civilian justice systems, Dr. Wayne Wallace ’15, a PhD in Psychology
graduate and 2015 winner of the Harold L. Hodgkinson Award
, saw the negative impact confirmation bias among law enforcement officers had on the outcome of cases. Now, as a forensic consultant and criminal justice and psychology faculty member at several colleges and universities, he’s working to eliminate that bias and ensure justice is served.
Confirmation bias is a belief that is not supported by facts. In law enforcement, it happens when an officer decides a suspect is guilty or innocent based on subjective or circumstantial information.
“Rather than following the facts and evidence of the case to its logical conclusion, you seek evidence that supports your bias, interpret ambiguous evidence so it supports your belief, and ignore evidence to the contrary,” Wallace says. “This can lead to officers doing less complete work when investigating a case, which can lead to wrongful arrests and convictions.”
Wallace’s dissertation examined the many factors that can contribute to confirmation bias in law enforcement, including emotion, order of evidence presentation, and duty assignment.
“What often happens is that an officer is faced with someone who has committed a certain type of crime in the past,” he says. “The officer assumes if he did it once, it’s likely he did it again. With that assumption, the officer pursues that lead only, doesn’t do a thorough investigation, and interprets any evidence to fit that bias.”
After years of seeing the ramifications of bias in law enforcement, Wallace is now devoting his time to sharing the research and results of his dissertation.
“People often forget that doubt and truth are not enemies,” he says. “You need to look at all the evidence with a dispassionate, skeptical eye and let it lead you to the truth for justice to prevail.”
Wallace has been sharing his results in the classroom, developing and teaching in-service training courses for members of law enforcement, and presenting his research at law enforcement conferences.
“Teaching is where I can make the biggest impact,” he says. “You have to gain the trust of law enforcement to get this message to them and achieve the common goal of improving the profession. This is where social change is effected. It happens at the individual, local, and small-group level as you give people the information and tools they need to change the system for the better.”
What you can do:
AWARENESS: The Marshall Project provides information and reporting on issues affecting criminal justice and law enforcement reform.
ACTION: The Innocence Network provides free legal and investigative services to wrongfully convicted people who are working to be exonerated. You can also work to help prisoners and their families in your community.
ADVOCACY: The Sentencing Project offers information on issues in criminal justice reform and nationwide justice reform organizations seeking volunteers, as well as how to contact national government officials to advocate on behalf of reform legislation.