The Austin Police Department is testing a new way to identify suspects in photo lineups. The goal is the cut down the number of mistaken identifications and improve suspect prosecutions.
Is it more effective to identify a suspect by looking at mug shots all at once?
That question is actually part of a 25 year debate. Austin Police are hoping to answer that question once and for all by being part of a nine month study.
The Austin Police Department is one of three cities to take part of the Eyewitness Identification Field Studies. APD detectives will be using both photo line up procedures. They will allow victims and witnesses to look at six mug shots at once and six mug shots one at a time.
Commander Julie O'Brien oversees the violent crimes division. Because of that, she has the largest group of detectives in the department. Right now, most detectives are using the simultaneous procedure, which is the one that allows the victim to view six mug shots at once.
"You're comparing each photograph to each other and determining which photograph looks the most like the person you remember seeing,” O’Brien said. “It's similar to a multiple choice question, you pick the one that looks the most right."
However, O'Brien says the sex crimes unit already lets victims or witnesses look at mug shots one at a time otherwise known as the sequential procedure.
"You look at the picture, you either recognize them or you don't. You're not comparing them to anyone else."
Under her watch the past several years, O'Brien says there have been very few mistaken identity cases each year. Still, she says they are always looking for ways to improve accuracy and prosecution of criminals.
"When a mistake in identification is made, that can have a profound effect on the person who's been misidentified as the suspect and affect their life irrevocably."
Robbery Detective Roger Boudreau, uses a database that has everyone ever arrested in Travis County to build his line up. He explains how he puts together a line up that is fair to the victim and suspect.
"It's likely going to be the same as the suspect,” Boudreau said. “If he has short hair, the other people in the photo line up will have short hair, they're not going to be too close or too far apart."
In this study, case investigators will not be the ones administering the photo line up. That is called the double blind administration.
"You eliminate that accusation or implication that somehow there was some type of improper influence inserted,” O’Brien said.
Audio from the process will also be recorded.
While photo line ups are an important part of an investigation, O'Brien says, it's not the only part. Detectives still gather DNA, ballistics, and other corroborating evidence.
APD also uses live line ups but not as often. They are hard to put together and not necessary.
San Diego and Tuscon will also participate in the study. APD is expected to launch the study soon.