Chicago police to reduce use of suspect lineups
After discovering that most other big-city departments use lineups far less frequently, Chicago decided to reduce their reliance on them
By Jeremy Gorner
CHICAGO — For more than a century, the lineup has been a vital tool for police detectives in solving crime.
The image of six people with somewhat similar features standing side by side as an eyewitness or crime victim peers at them from behind one-way glass has taken on iconic status, becoming a staple of police dramas on TV and in movies.
But after discovering that most other big-city departments use lineups far less frequently, Chicago police last month began a pilot program on the South Side to reduce their reliance on them. Officials said the traditional lineup is often too time-consuming to set up and can even be counterproductive.
Photo arrays — mug shots of a suspect mixed in with those of five others — fill the need in most cases and are much easier to carry out, the officials said. Using them lets detectives, under pressure with clearance rates for Chicago homicides still a concern, concentrate on the investigative legwork necessary to crack cases.
But lineups are unlikely to fall entirely out of favor, particularly if the Cook County state's attorney's office has anything to say about it.
"We're not going to ever say physical lineups are history here because ... there may be a need for it," said John Escalante, chief of detectives for Chicago police. "But we just want to focus on eliminating those that aren't necessary and get detectives out in the field to do other work."
Traditional lineups date at least to 19th-century Britain with the establishment of "identification parades" -- a procedure invented by police, in all likelihood, to avoid forcing witnesses to identify suspects face to face, according to a United Kingdom report on reforming eyewitness identifications.
But a survey of more than 600 police departments, released in March, showed that police lineups are used far less than photo arrays. According to the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based law enforcement research group, the survey found that a little more than one-fifth of departments conducted lineups, while all but 6 percent used photo arrays. In addition, nearly two-thirds had victims or witnesses identify a suspect at a crime scene, known as "show-ups," while more than one-third used composite sketches to assist in investigations.
Over the years in Chicago, police have commonly used a two-step process with witnesses to crime. If a suspect is picked out in a photo array, then police bring the victim to the station to try to identify him or her in a physical lineup.
But research has raised concerns about the technique. Some witnesses have difficulty knowing if they made a positive identification in a lineup based on their recollection of the crime or the photo array -- a phenomenon known as "mug shot commitment."
"The cops have one chance to do a visual facial identification. If they screw that up, then they're out of evidence," said Roy Malpass, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Texas at El Paso who is an expert on eyewitness identifications.
Chicago police Cmdr. Joseph Salemme, who heads the Area South bureau and is administering the pilot program, said his detectives are trying to limit the number of times that witnesses view a suspect as a result.
Adding to the push to reduce reliance on lineups is the difficulty in finding stand-ins. Years ago the department could usually find all the "fillers" they needed for lineups from the detainees in its station lockups, according to Escalante. Many were waiting for hours for their criminal histories to be verified before their release on minor arrests, but technological advances have sped up that process to the point that stations have few people in custody, he said.
Consequently, Escalante said, detectives often have to find fillers by traveling to different lockups in the city -- which can take hours. "That adds up in terms of overtime, and it keeps detectives away from investigating other cases," Escalante said.
Detectives became so desperate at one point that they started raiding the police academy to use recruits as fillers. But that soon came to a halt because it pulled them from their training, Escalante said.
Both lineups and photo spreads have had their controversies over the years. Nearly three-fourths of the convictions overturned nationally by DNA evidence involved false identifications, according to a report by the New York-based Innocence Project.
Among the flaws cited in the report were suggestive lineups in which a suspect wore clothing that gave off the impression of guilt; cues or leading questions from detectives that influenced a witness to pick out a particular person in a lineup; and witnesses who felt pressured to make a choice and identified someone they thought closely resembled the offender.
Malpass cautioned that photo spreads aren't necessarily more reliable than physical lineups but that the vast databases of mug shots and driver's license photos make them much easier for police to do correctly.
"It's probably more difficult to make the lineup itself fair than with a photo spread ... because of all the work it takes to get five people who are fair alternatives to the suspect," Malpass said.
Los Angeles police said they rarely use physical lineups because photo spreads are so much easier to pull off with big-city departments' ready access to hundreds of thousands of computerized booking photos.
"You get a photo of somebody who you believe is your suspect, you get the other five photographs that are similar in nature, and you run out to your victims and do it that way," said Jeff Pailet, an LA police lieutenant and former detective. "You'll either get a positive identification or elimination a lot faster."
Sgt. Stephen Morrison, who supervises robbery detectives for the Houston Police Department, considers photo spreads the principal method used in witness identifications. Still, he regards lineups as the best way to accurately identify suspects but acknowledges how labor-intensive they can be.
"Most of the time you have to make arrangements for the victims to come downtown, you have to make arrangements for their lawyer to be there, so there's a little bit more in the way of hurdles and hoops that you have to jump through to make it happen," Morrison said.
Salemme said a goal of the pilot project is to bring Chicago's use of lineups more in line with that of other big-city departments.
Besides, since the department's access to mug shots is so "enormous," Salemme said, he believes photo arrays are a fairer and more reliable method than physical lineups.
But the state's attorney's office remains a staunch believer in the value of physical lineups.
Fabio Valentini, head of the office's criminal prosecutions, said prosecutors will continue to request that detectives conduct lineups if they feel they would strengthen their case.
Valentini said he believes physical lineups make investigations more complete — and are more useful than photo arrays.
"The identification of someone when you physically see him from a few feet away, as opposed to just looking at a photo of his face, is going to be a stronger method of identification without question," he said.
Copyright 2013 the Chicago Tribune