Jailing the Wrong Man: Mug Shot Searches Persist in New York, Despite Serious Risks

Many big police departments will not use open-ended mug shot searches because of the chance of a mistaken identification. But New York City detectives turn to them routinely.

Comments: 108

  1. Shamefully, the dozens of wrongful convictions that have come to light in recent years have not resulted in widespread criminal justice reform in NY. Prosecutors are still not obligated to turn over to defense attorneys every piece of paper in the prosecutors' files--including grand jury testimony which would often point to weaknesses or inconsistencies in the prosecution's case. Videotaping of confessions by suspects in custody is still limited and not used in every case. The bodycams worn by NYPD officers are not turned on all the time and, even when there is a recording, the NYPD releases the recording only in selected cases. This is is contrast to other, more progressive states that have recognized the evil and immorality inherent in wrongful arrests and have fully implemented the reforms that NY refuses to implement. Shame on you, NY prosecutors, police and legislators for allowing these conditions to exist.

  2. @B. And this is the liberal "Empire State". I'm ashamed.

  3. @B. Well technically Prosecutors ARE obligated to turn over all discovery materials to defense counsel in a timely manner. They just don't do it, and the judges don't really care. A bigger issue is how they drag out hearings and trials. Their trick is to keep announcing "ready" for trial even when they are not ready, and then ask for adjournments and extensions. That allows them to essentially extend/ignore the time limit that they have to charge someone or not. Basically they have to decide within a certain number of days whether they're actually gonna charge you, or else they have to drop the case and let you go. And they try to skip that deadline or draw it out as long as possible, even when they know they've got no case.

  4. @Sam. Current discovery laws in NY do not require that prosecutors turn over everything to which they have access--notably the minutes of Grand Jury testimony which could assist greatly in defending someone charged with a crime. The law does provide that a judge can review the minutes for "legal sufficiency" but many times this is just a rubber stamp for charges that have already been voted by the Grand Jury. The NYT had an article in the past 2 years where Judge Carro of Manhattan discouraged a defendant from taking a plea because he, the judge, had seen the minutes and knew there were inconsistencies in the prosecution's case. How can this be? Only the unusual intervention by the judge prevented a mis-carriage of justice made possible by NY's retrograde laws and stubborn, institutional unwillingness to change them.

  5. New York city reached a point of crime and population explosion even before 911. Now the NYPD has a larger responsibility than it can handle with appropriate care. Profiling and wrongful identification has to be expected every day. A person who died recently in his mid 40s of hypertension while living in Boston had been living in NY before for 3 years. Life in NY must have been stressful to him. He shared horrifying stories when he stayed NY , the police once hand cuffed him for jogging without identification. The police did not want to accept his explanation that he was not aware that he was expected to carry his driver's license while jogging in his own neighborhood. His teenage daughter was on a bicycle returning from school and she was followed by an individual and she in a hurry ran into a pole and just walked all the way back with her broken bicycle. Of course NYPD cannot be everywhere in NYC leaving large regions of city free for trouble makers. When this person left Arkansas where he had a spacious custom built house for NYC, I wondered whether it was the right move. It sure was not. More Americans are moving out of NY to other states like Texas and this trend will continue. I love NY to visit for a couple of days but to settle in NY from a place one is settled may require a lot of consideration and clear thought. This person would be alive and well today if he was not so stressed. May be some day when NY is not such a pressure cooker for 1000s of its residents,

  6. @Girish Kotwal I'm afraid your conclusion that the person would be alive today if not for ... is merely speculation. Your belief that living in New York was responsible is equally speculative. "Speculative" does not mean false, it means no evidence either way.

  7. @Girish Kotwal Thanks for that insightful description of life in New York, random person from Kentucky, but maybe you should try to actually know what you're talking about before you start writing. This city is growing, not shrinking, because we've got jobs that people actually want. Crime had been dropping just about every single year since the mid 90s. That is a statistical, verifiable fact. Hypertension, or "high blood pressure" can be caused by literally dozens of factors, including being too fat and eating too much salt. Maybe this random person whose story you're citing as a description of all of New York dropped dead because they can't lay off the chips and ice cream.

  8. “that investigators in precincts throughout the city routinely ask witnesses to search through the photos.” If, on the other hand, investigators routinely did not ask witness to search through photos, and people were arrested without asking for a witness identification, we would have an article on that.

  9. @A Thinker, Not a Chanter. How about arresting a suspect based on evidence and then conducting a lineup for identification purposes? As pointed out in this article and reader comments, having a victim or witness comb through hundreds of small photos is not an effective way to ID a perpetrator.

  10. @A Thinker, Not a Chanter. And if the clearance rate for the NYPD went down, that would be another article.

  11. @MarieS If you are held up in the street, just how much evidence do you thing there will be beyond witness identification? While the mug book may well not be that effective a way of dealing with the problem, what do you propose as an alternative?

  12. An extension of this is that mugshots usually find themselves online, which can extremely damage a person's online reputation--or worse.

  13. As I read this article I was reminded of the 1956 (non-fiction drama) film 'The Wrong Man', directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It told the story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero, a musician falsely accused of bank robbery. It also reminded me of my own story that took place in 2008. I had been working as a maintenance man at an apartment complex, and I was fired because I refused to have my fingerprints taken. I was singled out from among six (6) of my co-workers because of misinformation that appeared on a criminal background check. I refused to provide a fingerprint card unless that information was first corrected. Then the company fired me. The incident stemmed from my job application, when I answered the question: “Have you lived in the State of Minnesota for the past ten years?”, I truthfully answered ‘Yes’. Evidently, the company that did the background check said that I had lived in North Carolina ten years previously, which was not true - I hadn't. My employer required me to submit an F.B.I. fingerprint card, citing MnStat 299C.58 (2008) – The National Crime Prevention and Privacy Compact (Minnesota). After research at the law library I soon discovered this meant that the (incorrect) information from the criminal background check would be attached to the F.B.I. fingerprint card, and placed into a national database. The whole thing was tantamount to identity theft. But the only way I could prevent the identity theft was to refuse to provide my fingerprints.

  14. @W Good for you, but what a fascinating story!

  15. Bryan Thomas's portrait is gorgeous. Such an inspiring masterpiece in photography.

  16. When I was a kid the man up the street was arrested for robbery based on his appearance. He was jailed as his family struggled to bail him out, then once home, my Dad would go sit with him after work so that he always had an alibi, we all knew him well enough to know he would never commit a crime. Luckily the real criminal got caught in the act, the resemblance was striking-it was a heartbreaking relief, most likely this very nice man would have been convicted.

  17. @DJM Your Dad was a mensch.

  18. Some of the comments here (and indeed NYPD procedures) seem to make some entirely unnecessary and arguably silly assumptions. Recognising and accommodating the failures and vulnerabilities of mug shot IDs does not require police to abandon their use. By all means, have victims/witnesses review mug shots. By all mean, if they do pick someone out of the book, investigate that individual. If the investigation yields credible, corroborating evidence of their guilt, then by all means, arrest and charge them. But that's not what happened in this case, according to the article. In this case, a "person of interest" in the case was arrested, charged and jailed pending trial SOLELY on the basis of the witness ID, despite the fact that -- as the article notes -- such IDs are notoriously unreliable. The choices here are not binary, i.e., either a) continue arresting based solely on mug shot IDs or b) eliminate the use of mug shots altogether. Like far too many policy debates, people seem to think that the two extremes are the only options available.

  19. The problem is that the use of the photos distorts memory so all future IDs are unreliable. As a result the victim becomes unreliable as a witness in a situation where the victim is likely the only witness.

  20. @Gregory Smith A much better alternative is described in the article. No photos are used unless the cops already are looking at a suspect. Then they assemble photos of similar looking individuals before letting the witness see them. As the article points out, with open mug shots a shocking 47% of eye-witness identifications are false.

  21. Bogus methods long known to be fraught with errors due to known problems with human memory are regularly used to incarcerate and criminalize innocent people. In some cases to actually assasinate them in our medieval death row system. Science tells us very clearly that memories, visual or otherwise, are fraught with serious and irresolvable problems even when people don’t purposefully lie, which of course they do. The implications for this are enormous: there are likely hundreds of thousands of innocent people incarcerated, and likely quite a few on death row. Moreover, family law accusations of abuse, maltreatment are untrue (and this is even discounting purposeful lies to gain custody advantage). Part of the Me too movement posdibly falls in that category. No serious cognitive psychologist would vet his/her life or freedom on the basis of the known deficits in human memory.

  22. @Gabriel Maldonado There is no comparison between someone picking the wrong person due to a faulty process and someone fabricating an entire incident. I find it interesting that someone would use this article to leave a comment that is irrelevant to it simply to try and score points against abuse victims and women in general.

  23. The saddest part is that these innocent people have been subjected to jail, a stigma, a loss of livelihood and never given any remuneration nor apology. Where is justice in these cases?

  24. @Dissappointed Nowhere. They get a "LOL sorry" from the NYPD and the DA's office, and that's abut it.

  25. Probable cause does not require guilt beyond any reasonable doubt. That means that police will arrest people who are not guilty. Being arrested is very disruptive and for people who are poor can result in lost jobs and a collapse of their lives. Eyewitnesses may be the only evidence which police may have to identify suspected wrong doers but eyewitness testimony is often a lot less reliable than even the eyewitnesses appreciate. But without mugshots investigators may never have much chance of identifying who witnesses have seen. What every person who has become a suspect in any crime should be given are attorneys who can and will advocate for them without any of the arbitrary constraints that now exist. Unless one is extremely wealthy our system provides attorneys without giving those attorneys the means and oversight needed to assure that they provide as good representation as the very rich are afforded. Our system of justice relies upon the attorneys to provide narratives showing guilt or innocence, there is no assumption that truth beyond what these people present in court is relevant. This can clearly lead to injustices for defendants with weak advocates and injustice for the people when prosecutors advocacy is weak.

  26. I was mugged in Harlem by two black men in the 90’s. I reported the crime at a police station and the officers pulled out a series of enormous binders of mug shots. Now imagine how many mug shots of black men a Harlem station has. I’m someone who is terrible with faces and after looking at two pages in the book, any memory I had of the assailants’ features were totally mixed up. They told me if I said “It was this person,” they would go track him down. I closed the binders and left the station. It was a ridiculous exercise that could have ruined an innocent man’s life.

  27. @Jonathan You deserve thanks and congratulations.

  28. Does anyone still trust the police to be fair and efficient? Or prosecutors to strive to find the truth rather than the first answer that they can make stick? Our justice system is not only broken, it's terrifying. I'm an 80-year-old white woman who wouldn't let anyone I didn't know into my house without a warrant. I would not even go to the police as a victim of a crime if I could help it.

  29. The NYPD's misguided detective work perpetuates systemic racism; this is the sort of methodology than will ruin the use of artificial intelligence in police work. Garbage in, garbage out.

  30. Are witnesses that have picked out a mugshot under police 'supervision' REALLY then permitted to take part in an evidential ID parade? I can't honestly believe that - such activity would be forbidden (or evidentially useless) in most European jurisdictions, including the UK. I don't really see the problem with the 'pick out a crook's photo' technique provided it's just used to start an enquiry. It's no different to a (just happened) mugging victim being driven around the neighbourhood by the cops trying to spot their alleged assailant on the streets. But it's not 'evidence' and it would be extraordinary if it persuaded any half-decent court to remand a suspect into prison custody. My 12 year old son was the victim of crime here in London, so I accompanied him to a video ID parade [*]. I was impressed just how unbiased it was - I'd assumed (not knowing the suspect) that I would be able to guess which mugshot the cops 'wanted' my boy to choose. But I absolutely could not. No clues at all. Plus, the suspect's lawyer was in the room, watching the proceedings like a hawk for any misconduct or hesitation on my son's part. The boy was absolutely NOT shown, or asked to select any suspects, in advance of the ID parade. [*} No line of tense men in the precinct house yard, no one-way glass and bright lights. It was done on a laptop, balanced on an office chair which we sat around. The drama was lacking.

  31. Maybe they should have done the DNA test before charging him.

  32. Does this problem of false identity only happen to men of color or does it happen to men of white privilege as well? The examples given do not disclose.

  33. @Rick It happens to white men, too, as someone pointed out in an earlier comment in which they referenced the Hitchcock movie "The Wrong Man." However, it seems that men of color, especially black men, are much more likely to have this occur.

  34. @Rick Every man has a color. Even those with albinism. So do women and all other human beings on Earth. Color is not race. It is an enduring ignorant American euphemism akin to an ethnic sectarian slur.

  35. And this is why we have more people in prison than any country on planet Earth. Major corporations have factories in prison where these men earn pennies a day. Notice we never hear about the African American families being separated by this corrupt and dysfunctional prison system? Also, African American men have the highest HIV/AIDS rate. The deprivation of prison life leads to many consensual relationships in prison. These men are not provided with sex education or condoms. When released, especially in the south, they many times die of AIDS because of lack of access to HIV clinics. Those are the lucky ones to be given an HIV test in prison. I feel the government is engaging in a form of "ethnic cleansing" with African Americans.

  36. So New York detectives have no qualms about locking up an innocent person for months, rather than revising their investigative techniques. Alfred Hitchcock's 1956 film "The Wrong Man" is based on a New York City case from three years earlier, in which an innocent man is wrongly identified by eye-witnesses. When the real culprit is finally caught and the man exonerated, he receives no apology, and his wife spends two years in an institution after having had a nervous breakdown from the ordeal. In the NYPD, nothing has changed.

  37. During my psychology doctoral program, one of my classes had us view a video about a tragic case in which a woman was shown mug shots, and with some nudging, picked out one man as the person who had viciously assaulted her. A bit later, she's picked the man in that photo out of a lineup. (Of course he looked familiar--he was the only man in the lineup whose photo she'd seen.) In court, her ID of him was equally absolute. Years later, DNA rescued him from prison. Both he and the woman were interviewed. She was horrified, distraught, despairing. She vowed she'd done her best to be honest and fair. My classmates were enraged at her, wished they could fling her into prison. When I pointed out that "This case had two victims--the now exonerated man and the woman whose identification of him had been forced on her by faulty police methods"--they turned their rage on ME. When people (victims, police, students) feel outraged, reason sometimes flies out the window.

  38. @MLChadwick Alas, your final sentence is true. Worse, I suspect "sometimes" should be "often".

  39. @MLChadwick In addition to the obvious reason for being disturbed, i.e., that the woman chose the wrong man and that he spent years in prison, I am also extremely concerned that a group of people taking a class as part of a psychology doctoral program would react in the manner your described. Honestly, I would expect more from people taking a class in connection with getting their GED!

  40. Resemblance/similarity is tricky. It's a matter of shared properties--i.e. classifications. A resembles B (period or absolutely) can be neither true nor false. Resemblance is a relation--at least triadic--A resembles B re classification C, Furthermore properties/classifications are also perceiver/conceiver relative. No things looks alike to the blind or sound alike to the deaf. In general no things share the same classification/description to those ignorant of the rules of classification--i.e. definitions. Thus often resemblances need educated senses--eyes, ears, noses, even fingers--diagnosis by palpation takes training. And we can miss the forest for the trees or vice versa. Irrelevant detail to the untrained may be crucial to experts. Classification is discrimination--the good let all and only relevant factors count; the bad don't count all or count irrelevant ones. The biased and deluded (like Quixote) "see" resemblances that aren't there. Classifications may be vague--with fuzzy boundaries (wide "gray areas")--or more precise--with sharper boundaries. Family resemblances share properties from a set--no specific one is necessary--but some from the set are. Resemblance is always a matter of degree. Identical (monozygotic) twins (one egg, one sperm) share many classifications. Fraternal (dizygotic) twins (two eggs, two sperm) share fewer, even fewer than polar twins (one egg, two sperm). But everything resembles something else to one degree or another.

  41. @Michael Kubara Thanks for taking the time to remind us of the basics.

  42. Surely in this day of DNA, fingerprints and such, there are better methods of narrowing down suspects. Too many men suffer due to outmoded ID methods, including pressure by police on the victim to choose one of the photos they show a victim.

  43. Kudos to The New York Times. This reminds me of Martin Niemöller's famous poem. The first and last lines read, "First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out...Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me." We are all at risk when the innocent are hounded. But there is more at stake than harm to the innocent and potential harm; injustice degrades respect, kindness, and all of society.

  44. How often have mugshots identified the culprit?

  45. After an attempted break-in at my apartment, in which I saw the would-be burglar, I was taken to the Precinct station where I was shown mug-shots. When I asserted that the guy I saw was not in any of the mug-shots I was shown, the detective pressed me. She scrolled back to one guy in particular, and asked if I was sure it wasn’t him. (It wasn’t) It was very clear she wanted me to finger that guy specifically, but I refused to play along. What little respect I had for the NYPD really took a final death-blow that day.

  46. Show my photo to enough crime victims, and I'm sure I'd be arrested for a variety of crimes across the country.

  47. Photo evidence is losing reliability in a similar phenomenon to the lessened importance of DNA evidence. As humans grow accustomed to viewing thousands of variations of thousands of images, they will no longer have the photographic "faith" that existed in the past. DNA evidence has lost some reliability in a similar phenomenon. DNA evidence may be good proof of something, but the system that acquires, manages and stores the evidence can be impeached. Just ask OJ!

  48. The problem is police, their untrained, unsophisticated methods and their single minded goal of finding the guilty. There is never a thought to protecting the innocent. Police only ask questions and do investigations that lead to guilt. They must find someone who "did it". Nothing else matters. Finding the guilty is not a science of proven methods. Finding guilty persons is a matter of finding out who was nearby, who had a motive, who had prior arrests, and who can easily be proved had opportunity. Put it all together and someone is guilty. Innocence goes by the way side if everything else comes together. Worse, if the presumed guilty person is interrogated the questioning of a suspect follows the same course. When there is no confession, or even when there is, suspects are often fed false information and told deliberate lies to deceive and trick suspects into making false statements. The list of things that police do to find the guilty also includes leaving out information at trials that make it seem that there was means or motive. In 1975 at an arson trial in PA 3 police witnesses were thrown off the stand by the Honorable Judge Brown who immediately saw through lies of the St. Police Fire Marshall, an insurance agent and one other person. All withheld information of innocence known to the police. The man was acquitted, the judge charged the jury to find the man innocent. He also threw out charges. Police are corrupt, evil and ill trained. Innocence? Not a chance.

  49. NYPD finest.

  50. The most disturbing aspect of this story is what remains unsaid: why are these court records sealed? Is the state insistent that there be no oversight?

  51. The records of dismissed cases are sealed by a statute meant to protect the reputation of the defendant and to prevent law enforcement from using the records of the arrest, including the mug shot, to investigate the defendant in future cases. These records are, nevertheless, available to the defendant. Those wishing to obtain records of dismissed cases have the option of obtaining them with the permission and cooperation of the defendant.

  52. City with an antiquated and substandard subway also has similarly outdated policing. Go figure.

  53. Here's a little test for ID-ing individuals based on photographs. Do a google image search for Robert Taylor, the hollywood star of the 1930's. Then do one for Warner Baxter, also a hollywood star of the 1930's. Take a screen shot of head shots of each and put them side-by-side. Ask people if they are the same person. Most people in the 1930's would have been able to correctly identify them. That's very unlikely to be the case today.

  54. @Timetunneler I think that they only resemble each other when both are older and both have a mustache. The young Robert Taylor did not really look much like Warner Baxter. In addition, since they weren't actually contemporaries, Baxter having been born in 1889, Taylor in 1911, it is unlikely that one would have been mistaken for the other in person.

  55. The work of psychologists like Elizabeth Loftus, as well as studies of brain architecture, have demonstrated that every act of recollection is also an act of modification of memory, incorporating current perceptions and feelings. This implies that identification from a mug shot will falsely modulate the memory onto the mug shot, and also create feelings of certainty about the identification. Later, on the witness stand, the witness will actually "know" characteristics of the perpetrator that existed in the mug shot, but not in the actual perpetrator. Every jury should be instructed that, if a witness did not have some familiarity with the perpetrator before the time of the crime, then the witness's identification should be devalued to a rough approximation.

  56. @rick shapiro every act of recollection is also an act of modification of memory, incorporating current perceptions and feelings. _________ That is fascinating. I think this concept should also apply to claims after the fact of coerced sexual contact (especially in a social climate that now practically commands us to take at face value a woman's recollection and *interpretation* of events). The expected response--that this is off thread--will be leveled by those who just don't want to consider that the concept applies outside the misidentification of innocent black men through mug shots. No surprise there. But it's not really OT. It's "Believe the Victim!" (in the sexual context) vs. "Who you going to believe? Me, or your own lying eyes?" (n the mug shot context.) Many, many people do not believe that their eyes lie.

  57. Prosecutorial misconduct abounds in the United States, even at the State and Federal level. As long as it exists, I'd prefer more focus on our DA's and Judges rather than the police.

  58. @Enarc Generally, when it comes to prosecutorial misconduct, the police are hand-in-glove with the prosecutors.

  59. This is exactly why I am all for more cameras in more public places, rather than fewer. We are way better off using computers to isolate someone leaving the area of a crime scene, then putting them in a lineup if they match the victim’s description. Sensor resolution is going through the roof, while costs are plummeting. Advancing technology is increasing the usefulness and reliability of video evidence exponentially. As long as it is all properly and strictly regulated, employing more technology is really the best way to go. Techniques relying on vague human memories and their inherent biases are far more problematic,especially when it comes to equally protecting everyones rights. A high resolution video is worth a thousand human guesses.

  60. Agreed. I remember in the 1990's, during the Giuliani administration, high school yearbooks in some black neighborhoods were being used as mug books, leading to the forced participation of high school students in line-ups without their parents' permission (the students were picked up randomly in squad cars). Cameras in public places will, hopefully, put an end to such nightmarish, Kafkaesque episodes.

  61. @AndyW "As long as it is all properly and strictly regulated...." That's the rub. Camera evidence can be misused and corrupted in various ways. There is no magic bullet that will ensure just prosecution in all or even most cases.

  62. “It’s in no one’s best interest to get a false identification,” Chief Shea said. “I can think of nothing we want to do less than put the wrong person in a situation where they’re in jail and facing charges.” Sure, if the only mistaken identifications were made knowingly and voluntarily, they would be few and far between. It just seems exceedingly naïve to assume most of them are made thus.

  63. People conducting police investigations are not rocket scientists. It's scary what they can do to innocent people. Heartbreaking when you hear about people who have spent their whole adult lives in prison only to be released when new evidence comes to light.

  64. I was once asleep in my house when a neighbor rushed in to say that three black men whom he knew casually and whom I'd seen once had just left with all my cd's. The next day, a detective brought a book of photos and I said there were several men I possibly had seen before, but I wasn't sure. We talked for a bit and he asked me to go through the book again. This time, I pointed out a different man or two, also saying "possibly". He nodded as though I'd done well and said I had id'd "someone of interest". Those weren't "id's", of course, and I never heard from him again. Later events suggested that my neighbor, who was always hard up for cash, was found to lie and cheat several other friends, was the likely culprit. I wondered why the detective hadn't questioned my other neighbors, including associates of the "witness", asking if they'd also seen a van with three black men fleeing. It would have been a fairly rare sight in that place and time, easy to spot in broad daylight. The "witness" and detective were white and I assume those were factors in what did and didn't happen.

  65. There was a case in which a woman was raped multiple times after her assailant held her hostage. The room was dark and she had trouble identifying him. Eventually after looking at photos one struck her as being the one. In a line-up she identified her assailant. He was sent to prison and served many years. DNA evidence freed him. The woman felt terrible, because her testimony ruined the life of a young man. She choose him because she had been shown his photo so many times. When he walked in for the line up she easily identified him. Basically she was set up.

  66. I received a call one evening from a contractor I had hired to do work at a rental property I own. He said it seemed like someone had broken into the property and that he went home when he saw that. I drove over with my husband and we didn't see anyone there. We went inside and looked all over. No damage, nothing stolen. Huh. All of a sudden, I got a bad feeling. I grabbed my husband's arm, and said, "THEY'RE INSIDE THE CLOSET!!!". At that moment, the closet door burst open and two people burst out, one of whom was the neighbor's son. Much screaming ensued and while I called 911, they ran out the front door. The police arrived and swept the neighborhood but they were gone. About a week later, we got a call from the officer; they had some other reports of B&E in the area, and could we come in and look at some photos. I thought it would be very easy, after all, I was face to face with two people during our encounter and had interacted with the neighbor's son on many occasions. Not a chance. It was impossible. We declined to make a positive ID and went on our way. Post script - they were caught in the act elsewhere and arrested a few weeks later.

  67. @Sharon If you knew who one of them was, why didn't you just tell the police who it was?

  68. Remind me why you leftists love the government so much?

  69. @JND Who are "we leftists who love the government so much?" This is an example of how the propaganda machine badly distorts and disburses information about what "those people" believe should be good public policy. 1. Law and order issues generally are championed not by the left but by the right. 2. Ensuring that all of our community members have access to clean air, water and other public goods doesn't doesn't meam that we want to unleash the power of a police state on our citizens. (Have you ever checked out what the laws surrounding abortion are designed by conservatives to do to women? The very definition of big government meddling in the lives of women.) You have been given and appeared to have disgested wholesale propaganda about "the left." Might want to update your erroneous assumptions.

  70. Who said we ‘love’ the government?

  71. @JND I wouldn't say leftists love the government. You would prefer amateur vigilantism or chaos? What is your solution?

  72. We all know the harm of false arrests. But false arrests are always further investigated and usually lead to the release of innocent suspects by DNA or other evidence. At the same time, lineups frequently identify guilty suspects who would otherwise go free. You frequently hear that the conviction of one innocent man is worse than setting free a million guilty subjects. What a load of nonsense. Justice in a million cases is infinitely more valuable than a single instance of injustice. Cliches aren’t worth much when it comes to weighing justice.

  73. @michjas Your second paragraph is correct from any practical standpoint, and I'd drop the offending ratio down to a lot less than one million. In Frankfurter's, or Brandeis', or some Justice's classic formulation, I think it was ten to one. How does one compare the injustice of conviction of an innocent woman to the obvious offense (to both the immediate victim and society at large) of failure to convict multiple guilty women? Our criminal law, however, which is based on proof beyond a reasonable doubt and all manner of evidentiary restrictions, simply values the protection of the innocent over the punishment of the guilty.

  74. @michjas "false arrests are always further investigated and usually lead to the release of innocent suspects by DNA or other evidence" I find this literally incredible. Please back this up. Cite references and refute the many documented cases of police and prosecutorial misconduct that had to be investigated by NGOs like the Innocence Project.

  75. @michjas "But false arrests are always further investigated and usually lead to the release of innocent suspects by DNA or other evidence." This makes no sense. At the time of the arrest, everyone assumes they have the guilty party. If the person is convicted, it can take them years to get someone at some version of an Innocence Project to take their case and investigate further.

  76. It's already known that we have a harder time identifying people outside of our own race and yet they still decided to continue using a technique in which vague descriptions such as "large black man" are used as a way to find a culprit; but also it's NYPD.

  77. My boyfriend and I were mugged in a subway stop. We called the police to report the crime, and were quickly picked up in an unmarked cop car. They drove us around the neighborhood, pointing to every black man and asking if it was him. At the police station, we were shown hundreds of mug shots. We both felt really pressured to identify someone, despite the fact that we repeatedly told the police that it happened quickly, we were scared and did not get a good look at our mugger. We never identified anyone. It was such a strange and uncomfortable experience. There was a lot of pressure to pick someone from the mug shots, and I can see how easily it could spiral into a situation where someone is false accused and charged with a crime they didn't commit.

  78. @Britta In the early 90's I worked the swing shift as a computer operator. I walked into a section of the empty building around 9 PM and saw someone dragging PCs out of the building. I think we both were scared as hell to see each other. The thief was black. I ran into a secured computer room and called the cops. This was in an office park in Cerritos, Ca. After a few hours the police took me to another part of the office park. They had a couple of cop cars with their headlights shining on a black man in front of a white van. They told me the van was full of PCs and was this the guy I saw? He wasn't. They kept asking me over and over again if I was sure. I finally told them I could tell one black man from another. I've wondered over the years how many people would have been convinced by the earnestness of the cops. They did everything but tell me I had to identify this guy asd the thief.

  79. @Britta So the police should let sa Black go because he's Black? What?

  80. I have personal experience with this system after an attempted sexual assault on my way home from the train statin in Brooklyn late one night a few years ago. When detectives set up a search on the mug shot system, they used a broad search— pulling up photos of anyone arrested for fare evasion. There were tens of thousands photos in the search results, the clunky, outdated system was slow to load each display page of ten photos, and they hadn’t even narrowed search results by height, one descriptor I was sure of. It would have take me days to look at all the results. I looked at photos that had no resemblance whatsoever to my attacker for about an hour before I asked them to modify the search parameters, but the detective refused. Eventually I gave up. In my experience the system is frustratingly inefficient and arbitrary— once you’ve looked at a few hundred people that look nothing like the attacker you saw for 2 minutes, the first person that bears a resemblance will probably seem overly familiar. Given current facial recognition technologies, there must be be better ways to handle these searches. They never caught the guy who attacked me.

  81. @Ms X When I was in college I was headed home to Chicago after my final exams. Both of my roommates had left. I was walking towards the Greyhound bus station from our apartment when a police squad car with two white cops turned on their siren and made a quick turn towards me and stopped and got out of the car. I was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago so I was used to dealing with cops. I have been detained and questioned and released. I have been arrested and released. They tried to ask me about my whereabouts the night before. I refused to do so unless they told me why they were stopping me. A white girl had been raped and they claimed that I fit the description of her attacker. I told the them that I had taken a final exam the night before and came home ate and went to bed. Then I got up first thing in the morning packed ate breakfast dressed and headed to bus station. They searched and arrested me. They drove me to the police station where they wanted me to join a lineup. I refused to join any lineup unless and until I had a chance to call an Attorney. They took me into the Station and left me alone in a room. I was terrified that this was going too far. They came back in the room and said that they were going to release me. And offered to drive me to the bus station. I accepted their offer. I dread what might have happened. When I got out of the car one of my fellow students wondered what I was doing with "Buster"? In the mean streets that was bad.

  82. No question, we need to be aware of just how accurate or inaccurate any evidence used in the judicial system is. But we can't ignore a witness's leafing through photos to potentially identify a perpetrator. We just need to bear in mind the weight of this kind of evidence. There's just too good a chance that it will lead to nailing a predator. And of course, just because a person is *suspected* of something doesn't mean the police need to go arrest them. They should first question them to learn if they have an alibi. I suggest testing eyewitnesses on their ability to accurately identify (or match) random faces. This will indicate how likely that their photo selection is accurate. But finally, the goal of justice is not to totally avoid erroneous arrests. It is to avoid erroneous convictions.

  83. @polymath Study after study has shown that eyewitness testimony is virtually useless. Our brains are just not reliable in that way, especially in a stressful situation like one when a crime is being committed.

  84. This article raises an ongoing paradox as it examines the consequences, to individuals and systems, for using specific “evidentiary” tools.Consider, the daily available and accessible evidence, documented words, images and deeds,harmful to life, limb and psyche, perpetuated by all sorts of elected and selected policymakers, local, regional to national, which are not used to adjudicate!Consider: what has been, and what are, the consequences of a photographed worker “kidnapping” a minor from their parents’ arms? No line-up is necessary for identification! What evidence, words, actions, images, are useable evidence for justice to be achieved in situations of “ certitudinal misinforming” by negligent, ideologically driven prosecutors? What can,and does, “innocence” mean in an enabled, sustained, toxic WE-THEY culture in which a created, selected, targeted “ the other” is violated, daily, locally, nationally and globally with impunity! Advanced and more accurate technologies, as tools, for types and ranges of guilt, not guilty, or the Scottish “ guilt not proven,” such as DNA testing, all too easily transmute into justice Does-Not-Apply (DNA) here. Now.

  85. In the case of the blocked-in car, did anyone get the plate number of the double-parked culprit, or its make and model? Did the note say "Call Benny" or "Call Mr. Benny"? What was the argument about? Did the accused man own a car like the double-parked one? Why did it take two months to do a DNA test in the other crime mentioned? Are there any statistics on the reliability of open-ended photo IDs? Are any techniques available to make them more reliable? A few more clues would be helpful to shed light on this case. Otherwise, it's just a series of snapshots, without much evidence to tie them together.

  86. Many years ago, I testified for the Legal Aid Society in a challenge to the then current procedures for selecting grand jurors in Queens. I gave one example (actual case) where an older woman (the proverbial little old lady) had been mugged. She couldn't say of the gun was blue, black, or silver but she "positively" identified her assailant. The grand jurors, almost all older than she and retired for many years, couldn't see what her inability to describe the gun on which her eyes were fixated had to do with the identification of the purported perpetrator.

  87. I left my computer in an Uber car as the driver drove off. Because of mistakes I made including paying cash in my rush to catch a plane for a medical emergency, I didn't have any way to track the driver down. I carefully wrote out everything I could recall about his appearance and vehicle--and realized I couldn't swear to his nationality. Fortunately, remembering our conversation and my return date, he showed up at my door two weeks later and returned the computer with all of its contents in the carrying case. I would have hated to criminalize him by making a false report and now 3+ months later I wouldn't be able to pick out this great man in a crowd.

  88. Year after year the NYPD proves that NY's law enforcement activities are being run by criminals themselves. I would feel sorry for you but you haven't pressed your city government enough for change, which should begin with the firing of everyone in leadership and the wholesale change of policing practices that clearly aren't working. It's enough to keep me away from your city.

  89. In one circumstance, cellphone location data actually supported the suspect’s claims of innocence, so cellphones would be used as proof of innocence or guilt. On the other hand, what if a friend was using the suspect's cellphone at a different location, and the suspect was actually at the scene of the crime? OK, so I'm not Sherlock, but I think it's still a possible scenario.

  90. We do have to catch criminals; mug shots can be a valuable tool especially in the absence of other leads. But do it right. While the police can use a mugshot to identify a possible suspect, nobody should be arreted on that alone. There has to be other evidence that implicates them. And it is even worse when, as in two of the cases in this article, the only other evidence, cell phone records, suggest they aren’t guilty.

  91. Police at times give the impression they want to make an arrest rather than make sure the inocent is not charged. No one should spend 5 minutes behind bars for something they are inocent of. The Police and the Community should never lose thought of that.

  92. When I was an eyewitness in the 1990s in Seattle, it was done very differently. I and the other witness worked with the police artist to create a sketch of the perp. Then the police investigated. Later they brought fewer than a dozen photos for us to look at (separately), including someone who'd been reported behaving suspiciously in the area of the crime. We both easily ID'd that person. He had a rich family and the best lawyer, and eventually got acquitted in court, but the police did a good job on their end. I also had half an hour to study his face, with a lot of motivation to concentrate on it (he abducted and assaulted me) -- I think time, circumstance, and motivation matter a lot in how well an eyewitness will do. Not often brought up in blanket condemnations of eyewitnesses.

  93. As a 30-year-old woman walking home one cold evening in Brooklyn, I was followed into my building by a young man holding a box cutter who robbed me. I had been face to face with him as I handed over my money. I called the police after I called my uncle, a retired detective from the 44 Precinct in The Bronx. He told me to ask the police if I could drive around with them looking for the guy and afterwards look at mug shots. After not seeing him on the local streets I was given a shoe box of photos to look through. As my uncle had instructed me, I looked at the men’s ears (they don’t change, but hair and facial hair can look very different) and I turned each photo over to look at the date it was taken. “Do you have any photos of kids?” I asked. “Kids? No, of course not. Why?” the cop replied. “Because the guy who robbed me was likely 18-24, and all these pictures are ten years old,” I explained. “If you want to help us catch the guy,” the cop replied impatiently, “call our Congressman and get more funding for a computerized system.” Now I can see from this article that the “new and improved photo box” database has its own drawbacks.

  94. When a crime is solved, the relevant people arrested, tried and adjudicated based on solid evidence in a democratic society justice, as a value, norm, system and outcome is served. People, streets, homes, and a range of other sites are safe for everyone.Relevant rewards, merited, can be/are awarded.When the judicial system, its range of representatives in their various roles, mandates, types of powers, tools, sites, etc., fails, and harms the innocent, as well as democratic values there is a needed for timely transparent personal accountability.And in this context to also distinguish between noting in some way that “I am sorry,” which leaves the power with the “I” and “Please forgive for...” which enables the innocent person to decide what s/he wants to do.Then or later.Accountability is not just letters strung together!

  95. This article should have included the experience in New Jersey. The reporter only had to across the river. New Jersey leads the way in safeguards. We know in NJ that even the six photo array can lead to mistaken identifications. The New York department should know better at this point.

  96. Chimpanzees failed horribly when tested identifying human faces, but were nearly perfect identifying other chimpanzees. Race is a huge problem for someone identifying a previously unknown assailant of a different race. That "they all look alike to me", kind of holds true. Add the volume of mug shots that unnaturally test an individuals memory and the problem only gets worse.

  97. this is an important story. These men and all falsely accused deserve justice. but I am puzzled by your characterization of Mr Seward as a “father of eight” Is that supposed to be exonerating information? hardly.

  98. Back in early 1990, at the height of the crack-related crime wave in New York City (and nationwide), I was mugged late one night while returning home from a dance club / bar. I was attacked by a group of five black teenagers. Fortunately, a couple of sanitation workers and a cab driver (all black, for what it's worth), came to my aid and flagged down a police car. The sanitation workers, who had witnessed the end of the crime, described what had happened to the cops. Miraculously, a couple of the officers caught up to the suspect who had my stolen items on his person. But I was unable to definitively identify the suspect, sitting in another squad car, despite knowing that it was most likely one of the attackers. (The suspect pled guilty and was sentenced as a juvenile.)

  99. In today’s tech world, how can there be "little data” about how many precincts use the mug shot procedure? Seriously? We can track our cat’s meandering through a neighborhood but can’t identify the precincts using this biased, outdated method?

  100. Wow! How could the city of the famous Compstat still be using 20th Century methods to solve crimes?

  101. NYPD should probably not use this technique at all, but if they do the mug shot DB should be populated with a high percentage of control photos. This could be done as follows: 1. After using the current method to select a set of N photos to show an eye witness, add another 9*N control photos to the set using the same physical criteria attributes. 2. Make sure the officer showing the photos has no way of knowing which are the first set N photos and which are the second set of 9*N photos which are known not to be suspects. Doing the above would reduce the chances of a false positive (an innocent person be identified as a suspect) by 90%. Doing this will also save police time because false positives will not be investigated.

  102. Well, here's a novel idea. Don't do anything to get you a mug shot and you have no problem. Then again, the intelligence of the people in those mug shots pretty much guarantees that they cant understand what I just said.

  103. In 2014 I was robbed at gunpoint near my apartment in Bed-Stuy. I am white and my assailant was black. When I called 911, a squad car came and we spent 30ish minutes driving around the neighborhood. They stopped and frisked any tall black man 20-25 wearing a black North Face jacket. This was winter in NYC. That description fits a lot of people. They stopped maybe 7 or 8. I was in shock, having just had a gun pressed against my head for the first time in my life, but I also had an uneasy feeling that I was contributing to the problem of racial profiling simply by reporting the incident. After they finally brought me to the station and took a report, they had me cycle through at least 50 mugshots. It was never, ever made clear to me that not choosing any of them was an option. In fact, it felt just the opposite. The detective was on top of me as if I had to choose. I saw the assailant clearly and ended up choosing a photo I thought was him. To be honest I wasn't completely sure, but I didn't know what else to do. The man I selected had a solid alibi. When they told me a few days later, I felt an enormous sense of guilt for what I had put him through with my false identification. Months later, they called me in for a lineup. It was me and several other people who had been mugged in the area. They said they usually did this kind of thing with multiple victims at once in order to save money. I didn't identify anyone in the lineup and my case was never solved.

  104. Years ago I was assaulted in the street in daylight. I reported the incident, gave the police a description of the man and the license plate number of the car he had been driving that a kind bystander had noted. Officers came to my home and showed me an array of photographs. I thought I recognized one of them but could not be certain. It probably was the man because the police had his license plate number but the photograph showed him with a head of hair whereas my assaulter had a shaved head. I knew the officers probably knew who the guy was but I was unwilling to identify him based upon a photograph that I could not be sure about. I know now that it is nearly impossible to make a definite identification from a photograph hours after an emotionally fraught incident that might have lasted less than two minutes. And if the incident had not happened in daylight? The array I saw was not even an open-ended one. Eyewitness identification has long been known to result in wrongful arrests. But, unfortunately, jurors in criminal trials don't understand this. That is why these methods are so dangerous: eyewitness identification is very persuasive evidence.

  105. I stood at my open garage door, looking at the young man who was walking towards me with my ladder. He saw me, dropped the ladder, and ran passed me. I had watched him for a long enough time to ID him, "absolutely and without question", in the mug shot book the police asked me to go through one hour later. I was absolutely certain that the person I selected from the book was the guy I had just seen in my garage. The police said he was going to use my ladder to enter some houses in the neighborhood. When I called the next day to ask if they had found the person whose photo I had picked out, the detective told me that they didn't have to - the person that I had identified was already in jail, in a neighboring state, and had been for a month. Needless to say, that episode forever changed the way I value "eyewitness ID's".

  106. The problem with eyewitnesses being forced to select suspects from mugshot albums is even more widespread than this article describes. When I was a freshman undergrad at Columbia university in 2005, my friend and I were walking near 98th and Riverside when we were mugged at gunpoint: I ran, my friend didn’t. The man took her money, we both ran, and then we called the cops. They asked us “what do you want us to do ? You’re not getting your money back!” No further response. So, we reported it to the campus police the next morning who told my friend to go and make a formal report at the local precinct. This is where things got interesting: The police at the precinct made my friend look through their mug shot books for 3 hours, urging her to just choose someone to accuse. We had seen the man for maybe 10s and all we could say was he was around 5’10” and black; we had no idea what he looked like. When she refused to accuse someone, the police got mean. They threatened to drug test her. They told her that they’d found me and were interrogating me separately (they were lying: they never contacted me). They told her she was lying about the entire incident including the 911 call. But my friend stayed strong and refused to accuse an innocent person. What if she weren’ t a Caucasian Columbia student with zero drug history? If she had had anything to fear or to hide, it would have been very tempting to go along with the NYPD and just accuse some innocent young black man.

  107. Article says "reliability of eyewitness identifications began to face serious scrutiny within the criminal justice system in the 1990s". That's technically correct, but to clarify, eyewitness ID has been known unreliable for far longer. I still remember my first reading of the Scientific American article on the topic in 1974, and that article described both old and new research. The shame is that the criminal justice system lagged decades behind the knowledge.