Mistaken identity

Research shows police lineups are more pop-culture myth than reality during criminal identification procedures

Canadian officers use up to 12 stand-ins during a typical lineup, making it difficult to round up enough people who match the suspect's description.
Canadian officers use up to 12 stand-ins during a typical lineup, making it difficult to round up enough people who match the suspect's description.
Credit: 
Graphic by Justin Chin

Hollywood frequently imitates real life scenarios. Sometimes the movies get it right, and other times — well, less so. When it comes to crime TV shows, it’s a bit of both.

I conduct research on police identification procedures. Naturally, I’m an avid watcher of crime TV shows.

When I see them get something about identification procedures right — when someone’s made an effort to be accurate — it’s incredibly pleasing.

When they get it wrong, I try not to let it drive me crazy. I have to remind myself it’s not Hollywood’s primary job to educate the public on proper police procedure.

The reality is that the world of police procedures is often not that entertaining, so Hollywood jazzes it up a bit. Or a lot. I’m sure no one would actually expect to see so much cleavage on a medical examiner in real life — I’m looking at you, CSI: Miami — but it does make for better entertainment.

Unfortunately, Hollywood perpetuates several misconceptions about the way things are actually done during criminal identification procedures. Here’s an example: do a Google image search for the word “lineup.”

Did an image from The Usual Suspects comes up at the top of your search results? That’s the typical kind of lineup you’d see on TV.

Picture it happening as if it were on the show Law and Order: a suspect, whose identity is known to the viewer, and several innocent stand-ins, called fillers, shuffle into the room in a line. They turn to face a one-way mirror, behind which is a witness who is concealed from view. You, the viewer, see the witness as they look at the lineup. You wait anxiously to find out if they will — or won’t — identify the suspect.

It’s the stereotypical lineup scenario, and you think it’d be common practice among law enforcement. However, research I conducted surveying Canadian and American police officers on their identification procedures indicates that live lineups are virtually never used anymore.

Almost all the lineups conducted by Canadian and American officers are now presented to witnesses via photographs. I’ve seen photo lineups used on TV shows as well, but they tend to be portrayed as the potatoes to the live lineup’s meat.

The switch to using photo lineups in actual practice has benefits. Notably, it may make it easier for officers putting lineups together to find fillers who match the description of the criminal and make better lineups.

Take a look back at that lineup from The Usual Suspects. Imagine I told you that the criminal had facial hair and bangs. With only those two pieces of information, you should be able to easily tell which person I was referring to. There’s only one person in the lineup with those features.

This would be an example of a poorly-constructed lineup — where the identity of the suspect is obvious simply because none of the other lineup members match even the basic description of the criminal.

Now imagine the predicament of a police officer trying to round up a bunch of people who match a specific description to be in a live lineup, especially if the description is unique.

My survey data indicates most American officers use six-person lineups, but Canadian officers tend to use lineups of 10 to 12. You can imagine how difficult it would be to find good fillers for a live lineup in a timely manner, especially as the size of a lineup increases.

But as the world has become computerized, so have lineups. Most officers in my survey reported using databases or computer programs to find fillers for photo lineups. This means they have access to a larger pool of people from which to find their fillers, and can construct better lineups faster.

Using photos also decreases the chance that an individual’s behaviour could compromise the lineup in some way. This was parodied in an episode of Seinfeld where Kramer’s wild behaviour during a lineup, while hilarious, affected its neutrality.

The potential for partiality in live lineups is also illustrated in the real-life case in B.C. where the suspect in a series of sexual assaults refused to participate in a lineup, so officers held him in a headlock and forced him to comply.

The results of my survey indicate that police officers are integrating new methods into their identification procedures, and they’re right to do so.

But until crime TV shows stop portraying live lineups as the gold standard for identification procedures, it’s likely the public will continue to believe this outdated method is still widely in use.

It may be a case of art not imitating life — but it makes for one hell of a show.

Michelle Bertrand is a PhD candidate in the Queen’s department
of psychology.

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