Witness to fairness: The DA demands that police improve identifications

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Two federal lawsuits in four months against the Pittsburgh police robbery squad with a third expected has prompted Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. to demand changes in the police’s eyewitness identification procedures.

In a letter to Pittsburgh’s public safety director and solicitor, which cited a Post-Gazette story about a suit filed by a man who said he was wrongfully arrested, Mr. Zappala encouraged the police to adhere to proven methods for avoiding arrests based on faulty witness identification.

Mr. Zappala believes identifying suspects from a photo lineup supervised by officers involved in the case is a recipe for trouble. He wants a double-blind system in which the witness is shown a single photo at a time by an officer who is not involved in the investigation, which experts say can reduce memory bias.

Earlier this year, the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association approved a new model policy on identification that was endorsed by the state Supreme Court, but the Pittsburgh police did not embrace it.

Mr. Zappala warned that as of Aug. 16, if the police haven’t adopted best practices and procedures, the DA’s office won’t necessarily go along with charging suspects despite their being identified by a witness.

The district attorney is right to use his authority to demand that officers avoid identification errors. If a perception sets in that police are unfair or incompetent, they will have more to lose than federal lawsuits.

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