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DA Wants Pittsburgh Police To Change Eyewitness ID Procedures

Prosecutors must approve felony arrest warrants issued by Pittsburgh police because of concerns expressed by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala over the bureau’s eyewitness identification procedures.

In a letter to city officials, Zappala wrote that Pittsburgh police must adopt eyewitness identification procedures outlined by the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association by August 16. If not, eyewitnesses might be used to establish a suspect, but the information provided could not be used to charge an individual.

Pittsburgh police typically have witnesses view six to eight suspect photos on a single sheet of paper, a method shown to compromise memory, according to University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris.

“Human memory is much more like trace evidence,” he said. “It’s much more fragile than we used to think. It is susceptible to influence, unconscious or otherwise. It can change even by introduction of new influences.”

New procedures would require a third-party officer show a witness one photo at a time, allowing each image to be processed independently, garnering more accurate results.

According to Harris, an eyewitness is more likely to choose the person the police believe to be the suspect, if a police officer involved in the case is running the lineup.

“The police are not corrupt,” he said. “They’re not trying to do this. It’s completely unconscious, but it does taint the process.”

Pittsburgh police were provided with a new eyewitness identification policy earlier this year, but have yet to implement the changes, according to Zappala.

Sonya Toler, a spokeswoman for the city’s Public Safety Department, said police will make the proper changes once the measures are decided.

“The city has been participating in meetings to develop these protocols and once those protocols and procedures are finalized, we are considering adopting those rules,” she said.

Zappala’s letter comes one week after a federal lawsuit was filed against the Pittsburgh police department by Robert Swope, who said flawed eyewitness identification led to his wrongfully being arrested for two armed robberies in 2012.

Two months ago, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court also ruled that experts can testify on the reliability of eyewitness identification, something that was banned in the commonwealth for 20 years.

Harris said police should be doing whatever they can to cut down on faulty identifications.

“Our system of course isn’t perfect,” he said. “We can’t expect that, but we should be doing the most that we can, the best that our brains give us the ability to do, to make sure that we don’t make unnecessary errors.”

The Erie, PA native has been a fellow in the WESA news department since May 2013. Having earned a bachelor's degree in print journalism from Duquesne University, he is now pursuing an M.A. in multi-media management. Michael describes his career aspiration as "I want to do it all in journalism."