An argument for photo arrays in gang investigations

Some victims and witnesses don’t have the best memories and may not operate at the highest cognitive level and they can get easily overwhelmed by the big pack of pictures that were handed to them


We’re all familiar with the “six pack” as an investigative tool for identifying suspects. It is a proven technique when you have a known suspect and the witness or victim can identify him or her. Unfortunately, there are cases where the investigator doesn’t have it narrowed down to one particular suspect. Rather, he has a group of possible suspects that may be responsible for a crime. This often happens in gang cases.  

Gang members often dress the same, have the same haircuts, same tattoos, and are often of the same racial background. This often makes it difficult to identify one particular suspect. A detective could prepare a series of six packs to show to the victim but this can be problematic. 

Say, for example, you narrow the suspect pool down to 10 suspects, do you really want to prepare 10 six packs? Similarly, is it wise to show that many six packs to a victim or witness? That many images will overwhelm the viewer and can result in misidentification or failure to identify.

In Comes the Photo Array
Simply put, a photo array is a series of images of possible suspects that are presented to a witness. It’s similar in concept to the “mugbooks” of old when a witness would go through books of pictures of possible suspects to identify a culprit. The photo array is more refined however in the fact that the investigator is choosing from a smaller pool of possible involved suspects that he has identified (rather than a book containing images of every crook in your city).

In 2012, I investigated a gang-related assault that was captured on a restaurant’s CCTV.  Through the video we were able to identify some of the suspects but were unable to identify the main offender. We researched the accomplices of the identified suspects that matched the description of the primary suspect. They were all linked by being members of the same gang and had been contacted together. 

I prepared a photo array containing 13 images — all members of the same gang who had been contacted with the already identified suspects. My partner showed the array to a bartender who had been at the restaurant the night of the assault. 

This resulted in the identification of the main suspect.

Use an Appropriate Number of Images
What’s important here is that the photo array wasn’t a random series of images. Rather, it contained the most likely perpetrators based on the investigation. It’s important to note though that we didn’t use the photo array as the only form of probable cause — only as a means of furthering the investigation. 

We then prepared a six pack with the suspect who had been identified via the photo array and showed it to the victim. The victim positively identified the same suspect!  Other co-defendants cooberated the main suspect’s identity and involvement too. Faced with overwhelming evidence, the suspect pled to a double-digit prison term. 
I wouldn’t use a photo array that wasn’t based on a prior investigation that identified possible suspects. This type of “fishing expedition” would be ineffective and would be a case of “putting the cart in front of the horse.” Photo arrays should be used in the latter stages of an investigation and only after most other techniques have been exhausted and only after a list of possible suspects have been identified.

When using an array try to keep this number of images to a minimum. Between five and 15 images would be ideal. Too many images defeats the purpose and will often lead to a bad ID or no ID at all. Consider the use of “confederates,” images with no connection to the crime, if its necessary due to a lack of possible subjects or subjects matching the suspect description. In presenting the photo array I use the same admonishment I’d use for presenting a “six pack.” 

The admonishment I use doesn’t specify the amount of images used. It says “You will be shown a series of images…” 

I’ve used two different techniques in the actual presentation with mixed results. One is to hand the victim the entire pack of images and have him go through one at a time. The other technique is to place all the images on a large table — like a big six pack, or 12 pack, etc. — and have the victim or witness peruse them. The second technique is preferable. It gives the witness a chance to view all possible suspects and make a decision based on the totality of them. 

When given the entire array to go through, most witnesses make piles of possible suspects and uninvolved parties and the investigator has to stop and ask why the witness thinks those suspects are involved. It looks bad in court when you have to explain how you took the witnesses ”top three choices” and narrowed it down to one suspect.

Considerations for Using Photo Arrays
Some victims and witnesses don’t have the best memories and may not operate at the highest cognitive level (heavy drug and alcohol users aren’t always the most intelligent people) and they can get easily overwhelmed by a big pack of pictures. Many will feel an obligation to identify someone, as if the array is a test and they want to show how smart they are. 

Another problem can arise when deciding where to put the potential suspect’s image in the stack. The investigator has to decide where to put the images of the possible suspect (s). If its at the top of the stack it might appear prejudicial and if its at the bottom of the stack the viewer may have smoke coming out of his ears by the point due to excessive brain use and may be unable to identify anyone.

When presenting the array, I number the back of each 8.5 x 11“ sheet that contains an image. I place the images on the table in no particular order. This doesn’t have to be the order in which they are numbered, its just a way to identify which image was selected (“The victim chose image number nine, who I know to be...”).

After I admonish the victim or witness, I have them review the images. If they select an image I have them put their initials on it (like a six pack) and then conduct a follow up interview based on the selection. Make sure to use the same images when interviewing multiple victims or witnesses.

Another advantage of the array is images can be shuffled in any order prior to viewing. This technique, especially when a different detective is used to present the array, virtually eliminates any allegations of investigator bias or prejudice. 

When documenting the photo array, it’s important to be as transparent as possible about why the images were chosen. For example, in a gang case its important to mention that you selected the images because they are all members of the same gang and any other possible connections to the crime. In a jury trial in a major case you may have go through all the images in the array and explain their connection. This would include explaining why you used a “confederate” image(s) if required.

You also have to be prepared to get more than one positive identification from one photo array. This may be a desired outcome if you put in images of more than one possible suspect in a multi-suspect case (again, this is common in gang cases but may also be encountered in robberies, sexual assaults, or any other crime where likeminded suspects act in concert to commit them).

When used in conjunction with other investigative techniques, the photo array can be an effective way narrowing down the list of potential suspects and focusing on the wrongdoers.

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