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Thursday, March 15, 2018 12:15 am

Training cops to help stop wrongful convictions

For the past two years the Illinois Innocence Project (IIP) at University of Illinois Springfield has been involved in an initiative with the Police Training Institute (PTI) to introduce and train new police recruits on the challenges involved in avoiding wrongful conviction of innocent individuals. These two may seem like an unlikely pairing, but it’s not.

Over four years ago, Mike Schlosser, PTI director, was a UIS graduate student enrolled in the Conviction of the Innocent class. Mike believed the ideas the course offered might benefit cadets in PTI’s basic law enforcement curriculum. With the encouragement of his UIS instructor, Professor Gwen Jordan, Mike approached IIP with his idea. Acknowledging that education is one of the missions of the Innocence Project, the idea was immediately welcomed.

PTI is based at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and governed by the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board. Out of a series of meetings between PTI and the Project a plan was developed to introduce the subject of wrongful convictions to recruits in training. After months of planning and adjustments to the plan, the Training Board approved an optional trial session to the training curriculum if the cadet’s sponsoring police agency approved. IIP’s first training session with PTI cadets was in spring 2016 and over 70 percent of the trainees chose to attend. Their evaluations were overwhelmingly positive. During the summer, plans were made to continue the offering into the 2016-2017 sessions. Training has continued with every PTI class since, as it is one of the most popular of the optional offerings.

What makes these sessions work? The awareness of wrongful convictions has grown. While IIP instructors acknowledge that a vast majority of the 2.1 million incarcerated in the U.S. as of 2017 are rightly imprisoned, it is estimated that at least 5 percent are wrongfully convicted.That is 110,000 individuals, a staggering number. Mistakes are made in the name of justice.

About a third of each session is spent examining the major causes of wrongful convictions: witness misidentification, false confessions, junk science, government misconduct, snitches and bad lawyering. During the last part of the class an individual who was exonerated due to innocence tells his/her story and answers questions from the cadets.

The evaluations of the classes have been positive, with an emphasis on the value of hearing the exoneree’s story and its applicability to their work in the field. It has become clear that these discussions sensitize the cadets to questionable police practices and the mistakes that can cost someone decades of life behind bars, even though they are innocent of the crime for which they were convicted.

IIP is not the first innocence project to participate in the training of law enforcement recruits. There are four other innocence organizations that also are doing this important work. Yet, IIP remains the only innocence project with a continuing partnership with a law enforcement training program in the U.S. As a result of this successful collaboration, IIP – with the participation of Director Schlosser, IIP exoneree Teshome Campbell and Professor Gwen Jordan – was chosen to present its initiative with PTI at the national convention of the Innocence Network in Memphis this month. The Innocence Network is an organization of nearly 60 groups worldwide working for the wrongfully convicted. Hopefully, that presentation will encourage other projects to work with law enforcement agencies.

Will this training initiative bring results? It is hard to know. While we already hear from cadets about the impact of the sessions, many teachers will tell you stories of former students who reach out to them years later, telling them what one lesson, or one classroom experience, has influenced their lives. If working with the Illinois Innocence Project in any capacity teaches one thing, it is that results and change in the justice system take time. Ask any person who has been wrongfully convicted of a serious crime, most of whom have had to wait 10-30 years just to be released.

Dennis Rumme retired as a school administrator and is now a staff volunteer for Illinois Innocence Project. Larry Golden is the volunteer IIP Founding Director, having retired from teaching at UIS in 2004.

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