District attorney demands changes in Pittsburgh police ID procedures

Pittsburgh police must now have more felony warrants pre-approved by prosecutors, because of concerns expressed by District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. over their use of eyewitness identifications in making arrests.

Mr. Zappala sent a letter Tuesday to the acting Pittsburgh public safety director and solicitor demanding that the city police department use suggested best practices in eyewitness identification techniques.

The letter made reference to a Sunday Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article citing a federal lawsuit filed last week against the police department by Robert Swope, who said he was wrongfully arrested for two armed robberies in 2012 based on a faulty eyewitness identification.

His lawsuit was the second in four months questioning arrests by the Pittsburgh police robbery squad, its use of eyewitness identification as the linchpin for arrests and its consideration of alibis. A third similar suit is expected to be filed in the coming weeks.

Mr. Swope’s case and the case by another man, Deandre Brown, who was also mentioned in Mr. Zappala’s letter, were based on eyewitness identifications by people who did not know the robbers who stole from their stores.

Although Mr. Zappala said that a “witness’s sincere but mistaken belief” in identifying a suspect does not indicate police misconduct, “articles like that erode confidence in our police and in the quality and confidence in police investigative processes. Obviously, this cannot occur.”

Pittsburgh police typically have asked victims of crimes to look at a sheet of paper containing multiple suspect photos and asked them whether the perpetrator in a crime was among those shown.

Some experts who have studied eyewitness identifications, however, have suggested victims are more likely to correctly identify someone if they are shown a single photo at a time by an officer who is not directly involved in the investigation — providing for a sort of double-blind system.

Shown a group of pictures simultaneously, most people begin to compare them with each other, compromising their memory, David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and author of the 2012 book “Failed Evidence,” told the Post-Gazette last week.

Earlier this year, Mr. Zappala said in the letter, the Pittsburgh police were provided with a new model policy on eyewitness identification approved by the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association, and the state Supreme Court wrote an opinion noting that experts will now be permitted to testify in criminal proceedings about the problems associated with eyewitness identification.

“The Supreme Court’s opinion and the fact that the Pittsburgh Police have not adopted the policies and procedures on eyewitness identification advocated by my office and the chiefs make this correspondence necessary,” Mr. Zappala wrote.

“Effective Aug. 16, 2014, if eyewitness identification is not undertaken consistently with the eyewitness identification procedures previously provided, the identification may be considered as establishing a suspect, but may not be considered in and of itself for charging purposes. Additionally, effective immediately, the warrant office is to forward all felony warrant requests that rely primarily on an unknown perpetrator eyewitness identification to the unit that specializes in that particular prosecution. That unit will thereafter provide advice and otherwise will oversee the investigation of that matter.”

Pittsburgh solicitor Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge did not respond to a request for comment.

Sonya Toler, spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh public safety department, said Pittsburgh police worked with Allegheny County police, the district attorney’s office and president Judge Jeffrey A. Manning to develop an “eyewitness identification protocol.” She said the protocol has not been finalized and she would not provide further detail.

A warrant obtained by Pittsburgh police Wednesday — the day after Mr. Zappala sent his letter — showed homicide detectives asked another officer to show a witness “eight single photos” in an array while they attempted to narrow in on a suspect.

That came about one week after Mr. Swope, 34, filed a suit accusing the city and two robbery detectives of false arrest, unlawful search and seizure, excessive bail and malicious prosecution after Pittsburgh police arrested him for two robberies at a pizza shop near his South Side Slopes home.

In the other case, Mr. Brown, 27, of Lincoln-Lemington, sued after robbery detectives charged him with robbing a Homewood bakery while he was at a work meeting in Oakland.


First Published July 23, 2014 8:00 PM

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