Challenges of Law Enforcement's Witness View

Peep Lineup

Daily, we see police dramas supply television viewers with a so-called “inside” look at the various procedures required for solving crimes.  A detective pulls out a single image from his inside pocket and flashes it in front of an injured victim lying in a hospital bed.  Immediately, the perpetrator is identified and the case solved.   A bank is robbed and even though the teller only saw the robber’s face for a few seconds, she’s been given the credibility to stand up in court to proclaim the defendant guilty.  Once again, within the sixty allotted minutes, the bad guy is put away and we are safe until the next episode.

So what are the real facts on eyewitness identification?  How accurate are our senses in the midst of a life threatening situation?  What factors could subtly manipulate memories causing us to absolutely identify an individual we barely saw?  Do all law enforcement groups follow the same processes and procedures? These are the current questions being asked of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.

Agencies have always striven to compose a lineup of images that, while not identical, are similar in hair color and style, eye color, nationality, and gender.  Time is taken to carefully display photos of individuals who are similar in size and appearance (i.e. all in jail jerseys or all in street clothes) as to prevent bias against a given subject.  Each year, over 85,000 lineups are created and presented by investigative bureaus across the United States.  In 72% of overturned cases nationwide where DNA evidence cleared an inmate, misidentification by a witness was the most common factor in the original conviction.  Even with the fallibility of human memory/recall, eyewitness identification still remains a key component in solving current criminal cases.  The question is what can be done to assure the least amount of inaccuracy in such a non-scientific territory?

For the past eight years, the Department of Justice, International Association of Chief of Police, National Institute of Justice, and the American Bar Association have been working together to build national standards that relate to both the creation and the viewing of physical and photo lineups.  These are not required mandates, like the Miranda Warning that was established in 1966, but “suggested” procedures that are consistently being adopted by all levels of law enforcement at a constant high volume.  The procedures include:

  • Standard information is given to the viewer prior to each photo or physical lineup viewing.  These instructions should relay that the suspect may not be in the lineup and that the witness does not have to make a selection along with other details in the suggested lineup list.
  • Rather than a witness viewing 6 or 8 images simultaneously, sequential display (one at a time) of lineup images is recommended.  When viewing a number of pictures at one time, the brain can easily compare the images and come to a wrong conclusion based on the image that “seems” most like the perpetrator.
  • The officer administering the lineup should not be associated with the case or know which image in the lineup is the suspect.  This is called a “Blind Sequential Lineup” and assures that the officer will not give a subtle prejudicial physical or verbal insinuation as to which image/person is the suspect.
  • Photos should be shown in a random order for each witness.

Multiple agencies are now videotaping each witness viewing of a lineup (including audio) to ensure that impartiality of the lineup display is proven.  ImageWare® Systems, Inc., the leading provider of law enforcement investigative software, has created a product that meets all recommended criteria.

Using an existing photo lineup, Witness View™ displays the messages and images required in a timed manner controlled by the witness.  The computer recording of witness actions then begins with the standard information being displayed in a series of screens with the witness moving through the material at their own pace.

Lineup images are displayed one per page and the witness may either select the subject or move on to the next image.  When completed, the image(s) selected are displayed and the witness is asked to confirm or reject the chosen suspect, allowing the witness to view the group of pictures in its entirety once again.

When completed, a computer executable file is created that, if needed, may be displayed in court.  The executable will run at the same speed the witness used to view and select images. If the witness spent an hour viewing the lineup, the executable will display for an hour.

While the law enforcement community is working diligently towards a method of identifying culprits that even the ladies on Orange is the New Black couldn’t argue with, shows such as NCIS, Criminal Minds, and CSI will continue to perform miracles each week with hazy photos and five minute witness interviews.  While a tad far-fetched, I personally would appreciate watching the protagonists on Grimm create a non-prejudicial photo lineup!