Pittsburgh’s acting police chief, Regina McDonald, told the Allegheny County district attorney this week that her officers planned to change their eyewitness identification procedures following concerns expressed by his office over some of their arrests, according to documents released Thursday.
She made that promise in a letter written two days before the city’s new public safety director, Stephen A. Bucar — on his first full day in his new role — said exactly the opposite. Mr. Bucar, a former FBI agent, issued a statement Wednesday questioning the judgment of District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. and his methods for expressing his demands for changes in the bureau.
Exactly what happened in those two days is unclear. Neither Mr. Bucar nor Chief McDonald could be reached for comment.
Timothy McNulty, spokesman for Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, said Mr. Bucar’s order will override Chief McDonald’s, but he did not have details about what occurred during those two days or on how Pittsburgh arrests will be affected.
Mr. Zappala has said his office will not approve warrants for Pittsburgh police based solely on eyewitness identifications made using the old method.
His disagreement with Mr. Bucar publicly intensified Thursday, when Mr. Zappala wrote Mr. Bucar a letter calling eyewitness identifications a “primarily state-related issue” and Mr. Bucar’s statement “misleading at best.”
At issue is whether Pittsburgh police will use simultaneous photo arrays, in which they typically show a witness a sheet of paper containing photos of six to eight similar-looking people, or sequential photo arrays, in which they show the witness one photo at a time.
Mr. Zappala said in a July 22 letter to Mr. Bucar and city solicitor Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge that his office would not prosecute cases in which identification came solely from a simultaneous photo array.
He referred to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story outlining a federal lawsuit filed in July by a man who said he was wrongfully arrested for two armed robberies in 2012 based on faulty eyewitness identification. That suit was the second in four months questioning arrests by the Pittsburgh robbery squad, which used identification as the main — or only — source of evidence.
That letter (see below) was released to the media two days later.
The district attorney said in that letter that mistaken identification does not indicate police misconduct but said stories such as that “erode confidence in our police and in the quality and confidence in police investigative processes.”
Mr. Bucar said Wednesday that there was some dissent in the academic community about whether sequential photo arrays were better than simultaneous ones, and that the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance hasn’t concluded whether one method is more reliable.
He also said he “would have expected a phone call from the district attorney’s office prior to learning of his position in a newspaper article.”
Mr. Zappala responded Thursday that he was the chairman of a subcommittee on investigations when the Pennsylvania Senate and House convened a joint committee on eyewitness identification and other issues that released a report in 2011.
“The testimony taken involved people from throughout Pennsylvania as well as national experts, and the conclusions I have reached on this primarily state-related issue come in large part from my participation with that commission,” the district attorney said.
He also released a copy of an email sent from his assistant directly to the city solicitor and public safety director two days before his first letter was released to the media, noting, “Since you chose to address this through the media, and your press release is misleading at best, I have forwarded this information to the media to correct certain things that were said.”
Liz Navratil: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil First Published July 31, 2014 12:00 AM