Avoiding Mistaken Eyewitness Testimony While Describing a Suspect: Introduction for Security Guards

A security guard is the first line of defense against, and the first responder to, crime or accidents at the facility they’re tasked to protect. Some of the emergencies you may encounter as a security officer will be natural, like fires or falling branches. However, often there will be a human troublemaker involved, and this is when it’s useful to have a well-honed ability to describe the appearance of a suspect succinctly and accurately.

This is an extremely important skill to practice and perfect, not just to allow the police to catch the right person, but to avoid having them catch the wrong one. Eyewitness testimony has long been suspected as unreliable, and with DNA testing leading to overturned convictions, we now have mounting evidence of just how many mistakes witnesses make – in the first 130 death row convictions overturned through the efforts of The Innocence Project (a wrongful convicts’ advocacy group), 78% were based on eyewitness testimony.

The manifestations of mistaken eyewitness testimony can depend on the context where the witness is required to identify a suspect, the distance between observer and suspect, lighting conditions, false certainty imparted by leading police questioning, and even the witness’s age – a Virginia study showed that witnesses between the ages of 60 and 80 were vastly worse at identifying faces correctly than people in their 20s; disturbingly, older people were also more certain in their conclusions.

All of this is why a security officer needs to possess the ability to identify and describe a person based on clear and rigorous criteria, while avoiding vague insinuations and unsupported conclusions. This is a task that takes presence of mind, sharp eyesight, good visual memory, and an adequate vocabulary. And a notebook at hand to jot down all the details while they’re still fresh in your mind.

Here are some points to keep in mind when describing a criminal suspect.

First, remember that there is nothing less helpful to law enforcement officers than to hear that “some guy” snatched a purse and ran. When you’re reporting a newly-committed crime, the decisive factor in the likelihood of the criminal being caught is a quick and accurate description of the suspect, and your report should start out with this description. Try to get right to the point without prefacing your statement with unnecessary details or context – you’re not telling a story to friends, you’re relaying vital information to police.

Second, the description should avoid subjective terms like “suspicious-looking,” “seemed like a crackhead” and the like. Your description should focus on objective characteristics, the most helpful ones being: clothing type and color; height, apparent age and race (needless to say, be careful about issues of profiling and prejudice when identifying the latter); if the suspect is in a vehicle, the car’s type, make, model and color; other distinguishing features, such as tattoos, piercings and so on. Facial hair can be a double-edged sword – it’s very helpful to find a suspect if it’s done quickly; however, if the suspect is at large long enough to have an opportunity to eliminate or modify their facial hair, working with an outdated description may set the police off track and actually hinder the pursuit. When describing a suspect, keep in mind that reporting that’s too heavily weighted with opinions and conjectures can be considered profiling and will become a liability during prosecution – your eyewitness testimony can be attacked on the basis of prejudice or discrimination.

Third, know your limits – even people with reasonably good eyesight are often unable to see another person’s eyelashes at distances as close as 10 feet. The ability to resolve features drops off drastically with distance, and the temptation may be great to fill in details you couldn’t have seen, especially when pressured by police to give specifics. Don’t give any more details than you perceived, and don’t project any more certainty than you have. Be aware of the ways that environmental conditions such as ambient lighting can affect the appearance of objects – for example, a blue car will look green under yellow streetlights.

These are just some suggestions to prevent mistaken identification in the course of your job. Fortunately, most of the skills can be developed and improved in the course of your security guard training. In our next article, we will list some exercises that can help you get better at this crucial aspect of your work.