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Virginia pushes a 'best practice' model for suspect lineups

Documenting and following a reliable procedure helps make a good ID — and helps it hold up in court

The proper identification of suspects is essential on many levels. At a recent meeting of The Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, there was intelligent discussion on the topic of police lineups and identification procedures.

Increasingly, law enforcement circles emphasize greater accuracy and consistent objectivity. To that end, Virginia has developed a comprehensive lineup policy, which the commonwealth recommends every agency adopt. Blind lineups are a vital component of the policy.

From Theory to Practice
The overhaul began back in 2010, when the Virginia Crime Commission‘s annual report suggested the policy be reviewed and updated. Brandon Garrett, a University of Virginia law professor, helped develop the new model policy, published in fall 2011.

When he conducted a survey in 2013 to determine which departments were using the policy guidelines, Garrett soon discovered only six percent of all agencies in the state were using it. 

Today, however, the tide has changed. 

“The key for us is to ensure a policy that every agency could adopt. I think it is a well-reasoned and well thought out policy. It serves a community well; that is our intent,” said Teresa Gooch, Division Director of Law Enforcement and Security Services for the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS). 

This includes small agencies as well. Ultimately, the goal is to ensure that the victim or witness has the best opportunity to view photos of potential suspects without undue influence.

The Charlottesville Implementation
The Charlottesville Police Department is one Virginia law enforcement agency that is using the new model. Chief Tim Longo, a 32-year veteran of law enforcement and chief of the department for the past 13 years, is pleased with how it this model is working.  

Charlottesville’s ID procedure requires the sequential method and blind administration. A total of 10 manila folders are used — photos are placed in the first six folders, and the remaining four are left empty. The administrator has no knowledge of what is in each folder and shuffles the folders like a deck of cards. 

“We have the appropriate instructions that officers should be giving the victim/witness,” Chief Longo said.  

Professor Garrett conducted training for Longo’s investigators, and the Patrol Bureau spent more than three hours with detectives and officers learning about the DCJS model policy. Chief Longo’s department, along with 50+ other agencies, will be provided additional training on this policy. 

Chief Longo pointed out that others understand it is the right thing to do. An arrest is made or a charge levied based on eyewitness identification, so the identification must be good for justice to prevail.

For law enforcement leadership, Charlottesville’s successful implementation should be persuasive.  Ninety percent of police departments in America are small departments. Once they hear a small department is doing the photo shuffle method despite its size, the effectiveness of this method will be understood.

How Arlington Does It
The identification process in the Arlington County (Va.) Police Department closely resembles the DCJS model. The department has recently added requirements for documenting the photo lineup procedure, including having both the victim or witness and the lineup administrator sign the results. 

“The main aspect of our policy is sequential lineup as photo lineup,” said Brian Berke, commander of the Criminal Investigations Division and a law enforcement officer in the department for the past 27 years. 

Commander Berke noted the sequential photo lineup reduces the number of false-positive identifications without reducing the correct ones. Six photos are presented every time. For such a lineup to be fair and effective, the photos that are distributed have to be similar in appearance. It is essential that a photo does not stand out in any way.

Berke explained that the detectives provide the victim or witness with a set of instructions before the photo lineup, following a consistent script. “There is no chance for any variation,” Berke said. 

The victim or witness is not compelled to make identification, but they are allowed to look at the photos as long as they want. 

“If the photos are being shown to multiple witnesses, then we change the position (of photos) for each witness,” Berke said. Even if the witness has identified the suspect before all six photos are shown, the rest of the photos are still shown. 

“We have to be careful about saying something and not reacting,” Berke added.

The formal photo lineup procedure is documented in writing, the photos utilized are identified, and the names of all the persons present for the lineup as well as the date and time of the process are all documented. This is part of the model policy that the Arlington Police Department feels is vital. “Our procedures can stand the challenges in court,” Berke said. 

Going Nationwide
Constructive outcomes of the DCJS policy, coupled with positive feedback from Virginia law enforcement agencies, are inspiring the possibility for this lineup and identification procedure to become a best practice model nationwide. 

A well-defined policy could effectively serve as a national model for all law enforcement agencies to achieve the most correct, accurate identifications — ones that can hold up in court. 

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