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NYPD’s Controversial Use of Mugshot Database Searches

by Matt Clarke 

The NYPD’s practice of using a crime victim or witness’ description of a perpetrator to generate a search of the department’s mugshot database, often generating hundreds of hits, has caused controversy and resulted in wrongful arrests. 

New York City resident St. Clair Steward, 43, recently spent two months in jail as the suspect in a shooting due to faulty eyewitness identification. The father of eight was eventually exonerated by DNA testing of blood left by the shooter at the crime scene. But why was he arrested in the first place? 

A Queens’ detective entered the witness’ general description of the shooter into a mugshot database that the NYPD maintains. The description was of black men between ages 35 and 45 and 5 feet, 8 inches to 6 feet, 1 inch in height with past arrests in three nearby precincts. 

The database generated photos, and Steward’s was the 31st one the witness looked at. The witness also picked Steward out of a physical lineup. That led to him being charged with attempted murder and jailed. 

In most jurisdictions, police wait until they have a suspect, then use a physical or photo lineup to see if a witness can identify the suspect. The NYPD’s system is different in that it generates a large number of photos, and the suspected perpetrator might not even be among them. But the more photos viewed, “the more likely you are to encounter someone who looks like the person who committed the crime, but didn’t,” according to University of California, San Diego psychology professor and eyewitness memory expert John Wixted. 

In most police jurisdictions, detectives use the photo of a suspect in a lineup that includes at least five “fillers,” individuals who are known not to have committed the crime. That way, should the witness choose a “filler,” they know the witness is wrong, and they should not arrest the “filler.” In a mugshot search, any of the photos could be the perpetrator. It gives police no way to test the witness’ reliability. 

“I think it taints the investigation,” said Dallas Police Department Deputy Chief Thomas Castro, referring to mugshot searches. 

According to a 2011-12 survey of police and sheriff’s departments, 56 percent of departments with more than 500 officers did not allow witnesses to look at mugshot collections. It is not known how often the other 44 percent permit the practice. 

NYPD Chief of Detectives Dermont F. Shea defends the mugshot database viewings as one of many tools the department uses to solve crimes. 

“Mug shots are still a piece of the puzzle,” said Shea. “But to me they are a much smaller piece.” 

That may be so for Shea, but precinct detectives still use them a lot. “We’ll put the complainant in front of a system called PhotoManager,” said Wendelyn Dua, who joined the 52nd Precinct’s detective squad in 2017, during trial testimony in March 2018. In that case, a Brooklyn plumber was arrested for threatening another man, Fazal Ahmad, with a gun in a dispute over a Bronx parking space. The plumber’s photo was the 850th one viewed. 

“My guy was convinced that he would come to court and they would realize it’s not him,” said the plumber’s attorney, Sungso Lee of the Legal Aid Society. “I tell him, ‘That’s never going to happen. Once they’ve picked you, they’ll keep picking you.’” 

Ahmad testified at trial that he was 100 percent certain the plumber was the man who threatened him. In mid-trial, the prosecutor dropped the case after cellphone evidence emerged that showed the plumber was not at the crime scene. During her investigation, attorney Lee found a man who lived near the scene and was likely the perpetrator. Thus, a brief investigation can be better than a lengthy mugshot database search. 



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