The Pittsburgh public safety director volleyed back at the Allegheny County district attorney in an ongoing public dispute about procedures for eyewitness identifications, telling the county’s top prosecutor he will not abide by a demand to change them.
Pittsburgh public safety director Stephen A. Bucar, a former FBI agent, wrote in a public statement issued late Thursday that he had initially considered changing the bureau policy so officers would use sequential photo arrays rather than the simultaneous ones they have been using.
In a simultaneous array, officers typically show a witness photos of six to eight people on one sheet of paper, while in a sequential array they show witnesses the photos one at a time.
But Mr. Bucar said he began questioning that change after Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. sent a letter last week demanding that the bureau change its procedures after concerns following a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story involving a lawsuit based on an arrest made using eyewitness identification.
After Mr. Zappala sent his letter, Mr. Bucar said he began receiving calls from “colleagues of mine associated with the United States Justice Department” questioning whether the sequential method is actually more effective.
“These colleagues advised that the National Academy of Sciences has been asked to research and hopefully resolve through their research dissent between scientists who claim that the analysis methods used in research between 2009 and 2011 was faulty and when corrected will actually show the exact opposite is true, that the simultaneous method is superior,” Mr. Bucar wrote.
"As the National Academy of Sciences is expected hopefully to resolve this dissent, in my judgment it is prudent to wait for the report as the dissent itself can be used in court to attack either method. In the end, it is up to the jury to assess the eyewitness and the trial attorney to communicate the evidence properly to the jury, regardless which method is used."
Mike Manko, spokesman for Mr. Zappala, said the district attorney’s office did not plan to comment Friday.
Mr. Zappala wrote a letter Thursday to Mr. Bucar stating 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.
Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board, said this week, “I think that the whole situation is confusing to the general public,” noting that trying to balance the intricacies of eyewitness identifications with the need to protect suspects’ Constitutional rights is a “delicate” matter.
“I think that the real issue here is what is the contemporary best practice in law enforcement to protect the suspect and to maximize the value of eyewitness knowledge,” she said.
But agreeing on that best practice will likely not be easy. Defense attorney Dan Muessig, the attorney who represented one of the men whose robbery arrests prompted concerns about eyewitness IDs, has in the past questioned the fairness of arrests made using simultaneous eyewitness identifications.
Changing the process, he predicted, “will lead to a highly ironic situation where if my guy is identified sequentially — guess what, that method is garbage.”
Liz Navratil: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil.