Flinders professor joins international line-up

Professor Neil Brewer has used ARC funding to improve the accuracy of police line-ups.

The international Association for Psychological Science has selected Flinders University School of Psychology Professor Neil Brewer as a fellow in recognition of his “sustained outstanding contributions” to the discipline.

The association’s US-based president said Professor Brewer would join a distinguished group of scientists who continue to contribute to advancing psychological science.

For more than 15 years, Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor Brewer’s research has focused on the accuracy of eyewitness line-up procedures in the criminal justice system.

A revised approach to conducting police line-ups has resulted in improved accuracy rates which decrease the chance of a wrong conviction. Factors considered include how long a witness looked at the perpetrator when the crime was committed; how close they were; whether they are the same race as the witness; and whether the witness is an adult or a child.

“We have done a whole range of work on procedures, much of which has been implemented across the country, which is ensuring the process is much more effective – but it is still a flawed system,” Professor Brewer says.

Results of further ARC Discovery research into eyewitness identification will be published later this year.

In 2013 Professor Brewer was appointed as editor of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, first Australian to be made Editor-in-Chief of one of an American Psychology Association journal.

He also has branched into assessing the judicial system’s treatment of adults with autism spectrum disorder in collaboration with Flinders autism expert Professor Robyn Young.

Their book Crime and Autism Disorder Spectrum: Myths and Mechanisms (Jessica Kingsley Publishers) was published last year.

“While there is limited scientific research on adults with ASD in the criminal justice system, it is clear that there is a need for greater awareness among judges, police, clinical psychologists and others,” Professor Brewer says.

“For example, individuals with ASD might not understand the way their actions or words can incriminate them, or they might overreact due to sensory overload or obsessive behaviours in a new or unfamiliar environment.”

Professor Young says the research available does not show people with ASD are disproportionately represented in prison populations or psychiatric hospitals. In fact, some features of the disorder may protect them from criminal activity.

“However, some features of the disorder may combine with environmental risk factors that for a minority may lead to criminal activity,” she says.

The Flinders experts call for further research to investigate ways to reduce these risks, “if we are to protect some people with ASD who may be more vulnerable”.


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