Flaws seen in po­lice use of mug shot search

Centre Daily Times (Sunday) - - Nation - BY JOSEPH GOLD­STEIN

In­side a po­lice sta­tion house in New York City about a year ago, St. Clair Stew­ard in­sisted he had not been in­volved in a re­cent shoot­ing. Stew­ard told the po­lice he had been rest­ing at home.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors did not be­lieve him. The mo­tive be­hind the shoot­ing was a mys­tery, but the vic­tim had combed through pic­tures of peo­ple with past ar­rests and iden­ti­fied Stew­ard, a fa­ther of eight, as the as­sailant.

To the de­tec­tives in­volved, the shoot­ing in Jan­uary 2018 was just the lat­est in a long line of crimes solved by ask­ing a vic­tim to search through mug shots, an in­ves­tiga­tive tech­nique used in New York for more than 150 years. De­tec­tives en­ter a de­scrip­tion of the per­pe­tra­tor into a data­base, which then spits out dozens or even hun­dreds of match­ing pho­tos. The wit­ness scrolls through, in hopes of rec­og­niz­ing the cul­prit.

But these open-ended photo searches also in­crease the like­li­hood of en­snar­ing an in­no­cent per­son, ac­cord­ing to stud­ies and ex­perts in eye­wit­ness iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. The method has few safe­guards to pro­tect against a false iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and can lead po­lice to fo­cus on the wrong per­son from the out­set of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Many of the na­tion’s other large po­lice de­part­ments said they do not rely on the tech­nique, a New York Times sur­vey shows.

De­tec­tive bu­reaus in many other ju­ris­dic­tions do not show book­ing pho­tos to wit­nesses un­til they have a sus­pect in mind. In­ves­ti­ga­tors then con­duct a photo lineup, plac­ing the sus­pect’s among pho­tos of at least five “fillers” – peo­ple who fit the de­scrip­tion but are known to be in­no­cent.

That ap­proach of­fers some shield against a false iden­ti­fi­ca­tion: If the wit­ness chooses a filler, po­lice un­der­stand the wit­ness is wrong and know not to ar­rest that per­son.

In a mug shot search, ev­ery­one is a po­ten­tial sus­pect, and the ac­tual cul­prit might not be among the group. But who­ever the wit­ness se­lects be­comes the fo­cus of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“I think it taints the in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” said Deputy Chief Thomas Cas­tro, who over­sees de­tec­tives for the Dal­las Po­lice De­part­ment.

Der­mot Shea, New York City’s chief of de­tec­tives, de­fended his de­part­ment’s use of the searches, say­ing they were just one of many in­ves­tiga­tive tools.

“Mug shots are still a piece of the puz­zle,” Shea said. “But to me, they are a much smaller piece.”

In Stew­ard’s case, in the bor­ough of Queens, de­tec­tives en­tered broad search pa­ram­e­ters into the data­base. The vic­tim chose Stew­ard, whose photo was the 31st to ap­pear, said a law en­force­ment of­fi­cial who asked to re­main anony­mous be­cause the of­fi­cial was not au­tho­rized to dis­cuss the case.

“They told me, ‘The per­son looked at your mug shot and said it was you,’ ” Stew­ard, 43, said in a re­cent in­ter­view.

Po­lice then put Stew­ard in a lineup along­side sev­eral other men. Again, the vic­tim chose Stew­ard. He was charged with at­tempted mur­der and jailed.

He stayed in jail for more than two months un­til a DNA sam­ple from the crime scene was fi­nally tested. The sam­ple, be­lieved to have come from the cul­prit, did not match Stew­ard, throw­ing the case into doubt. Pros­e­cu­tors qui­etly dis­missed the charges in Sep­tem­ber.

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