Skip to main content

The Journal Gazette

Saturday, September 07, 2019 1:00 am

A suspect practice in police photo arrays

The lineup was a staple of police shows from the olden days – those shows that always look better today in black and white. Always scowling, the suspect would be escorted into the room next to a couple of people who vaguely resembled him, and a crime victim would be asked to view them through one-way glass.

In real life, it was often difficult to quickly find several other people who fit a description, which is perhaps why today most police departments, including Fort Wayne's, ask witnesses to identify perpetrators from photo arrays.

One advantage to those in-person lineups – no one could Photoshop the suspect.

That is what police in Portland, Oregon, did after a man with facial tattoos was arrested in a series of bank holdups. Witnesses described and surveillance videos showed a robber without tattoos. But investigators had other reasons to believe Tyrone Allen had committed the crimes, and they thought he might have used makeup during the robberies. As the New York Times reported, “police used editing software to remove the tattoos from the picture of the suspect ... and presented his revised face to four tellers, at least two of whom identified him as the bank robber.”

The Portland Oregonian reported Allen's attorneys are asking a judge to bar the identifications.

“Court records and interviews with police departments across the country show this was not an isolated episode,” the Times reported. “Some of the nation's largest police departments regularly use ... editing tools ... .”

Criminal-justice experts told the Times using such practices on photos of non-suspects may be fairer to someone accused of a crime, if those so-called “filler” photos are edited to add an identifying mark similar to one present on a suspect's face. Altering the suspect's appearance to make him or her more closely resemble witness descriptions is considered far less tolerable.

In-person lineups are never done at the Fort Wayne Police Department, said Sgt. Sofia Rosales-Scatena, the department spokeswoman. “It's all by photo since I've been here, since 1994,” she said.

Detectives try to select photos that match the descriptions of a criminal by height, race, gender and hairstyle. If a plausible lineup of photos can be put together, witnesses are asked to select a photo and circle it.

“Sometimes (photo arrays) work, sometimes they don't,” she said. But would the department alter a suspect's photo, or a filler photo?

“We would not,” Rosales-Scatena said.