Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Police and Security Services

Enhancing Older Witnesses' Identification Performance: Context Reinstatement Is Not the Answer

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Police and Security Services

Enhancing Older Witnesses' Identification Performance: Context Reinstatement Is Not the Answer

Article excerpt


The population in many counties around the world is aging and, as such, older adults are increasingly likely to be witnesses to crime. In the current study older and younger participants viewed a simulated crime event and, prior to viewing two lineups, they were assigned to either a mental context reinstatement condition, a photographic context reinstatement condition, or a control condition. As expected, older adults demonstrated significantly poorer performance on both lineups compared to younger adults. However, neither context reinstatement condition was beneficial for older or younger participants. It is argued that the detrimental effect of age on lineup performance is a serious one which police need to be aware of and researchers need to conduct more work on possible interventions to aid older witness performance. One such possible intervention may come from enhancing instructions given prior to the lineups on the basis that older adults in the current study were significantly less likely to report remembering such instructions compared to younger participants.

There has been relatively little study of older witnesses, which is surprising bearing in mind that the population in many countries is aging. For example, in the United Kingdom the number of people over pensionable age is projected to increase from 10.7 million in 1998 to 11.9 million in 2011, and will rise to 12.2 million by 2021 (National Population Projections, 1998). Similarly, in the United States in 1997, there were an estimated 34.1 million adults over 65 years of age representing 12.7% of the total population. By 2030 the number of older people will double to 70 million or 20% of the population (American Association of Retired Persons, 1998). On the basis of these figures older people are more likely to witness crimes (Bornstein, 1995) and be asked to attend identification lineups (Rothman, Dunlop, & Entzel, 2000).

Terry and Entzel (2000) suggest that there has been some effort to train police in the likely needs and problems of older people. They cite the findings of Zevitz and Rettammel (1991) who found that police officers trained in how to speak and interact with older adults were rated (by older adults) as being much more sympathetic and sensitive to their needs than were officers not given such training. Though these examples of good practice do exist, it seems that they are few and far between. Furthermore, many of these practices focus on issues of elder abuse and older adults as perpetrators rather than as witnesses. Globally, it is likely that many police officers who are increasingly dealing with older witnesses currently have little appreciation that older witnesses perform poorer on identification lineups. Moreover, they may be unsure as to why this occurs, and of possible ameliorative interventions. This review and empirical study address these issues.

Older Adults as Witnesses

Prior to examining the nature of the age effect on identification lineups, it is of interest to present the findings of Yarmey (1984) who assessed the attitudes of different groups of professionals towards older witnesses, including the police. He found that police perceptions of older witnesses' health and activity level did not interfere with their credibility judgments of the worth of the witness. This is of importance because it highlights the fact that the police in his study did not hold negative attitudes towards older adults. In addition, these findings highlight the fact that police may not always be focused on issues relating to aging such as health problems that may interfere with older witness accuracy. According to Yarmey (2000) "... older adults compared to young adults are less reliable eyewitnesses, on average" however "the accuracy and credibility of reports from some older persons can be equal to or superior to some younger persons" (p128). …

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