"You've Got the Wrong Guy," Claim St. Louis Arrestees. Often, They're Telling the Truth.

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Dec. 2 2013 2:23 PM

"You've Got the Wrong Guy," Claim St. Louis Arrestees. Often, They're Telling the Truth.

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has been doing some great work lately reporting on the number of mistaken-identity arrests in that city. Robert Patrick and Jennifer S. Mann report that local police have wrongfully arrested about 100 people over the past seven years; lawyers suing the city suspect the true number might be much higher. People have been wrongfully arrested for a variety of stupid reasons: because their names are similar to the people actually being sought; because of clerical errors; because their name was given as an alias by the real suspect; and so on. Some of the wrongfully arrested have lost jobs over the mistakes. Some have done extended and unnecessary stints in jail. One man, “concerned about passing down wrongful-arrest problems that have jailed him for weeks, hesitated to give his newborn son his name. He explained, ‘I don’t know how far this could go.’ ”

What’s most aggravating, according to the Post-Dispatch, is that nearly all of these wrongful arrests could have been avoided if officers had simply paid attention to the fingerprint discrepancies between the people they sought and the ones they arrested—or if, like other police departments, St. Louis equipped its officers with mobile fingerprint readers that can verify a person’s identity on the spot. And sometimes, officers don’t even have to examine the fingerprint data to realize they’ve arrested the wrong person:

A vehicle theft warrant should have gone out for William Lamont Willis, who has only eight fingers. Instead, William Earl Willis, who has all 10 digits, was charged and arrested at least three times, despite multiple fingerprint comparisons.
He was one of several individuals with physical differences that authorities could easily have noticed; a permanently closed eye, for instance, or someone’s own name tattooed on his arm.

On the other hand, the tattoo could’ve been a devious trick designed to throw the cops off the scent, right? Right? Anyway, you’ve probably already guessed that most of the people being wrongfully arrested are poor and black. Many of them have criminal records of their own, which just compounds the problem. Cops are already prone to distrust suspects who claim they have been arrested in error; they’re even less likely to believe the excuse when it comes from arrestees with existing rap sheets. To be sure, cops hear “You’ve got the wrong guy” just about every single day, and it’s rarely true. But there’s no excuse for failing to rectify the error when they do arrest the wrong guy.

The fact that mistaken-identity errors are allowed to linger for so long uncorrected is a clear indication of pass-the-buck management—of the city’s failure to establish protocols that would hold specific people responsible for getting these things wrong. The Post-Dispatch has done a great job establishing that St. Louis has a wrongful-arrest problem, and that it largely comes down to systemic indifference. St. Louis officials have vehemently disputed the paper’s reporting on this matter, even though, as the paper’s editor has written, “no one in an official capacity has directly detailed any specific factual errors.” Rather than playing damage control, the city should just swallow its pride and fix the problem that the Post-Dispatch has so ably documented.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.


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