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Back to Archives | Back to September 2013 Contents 

Research in Brief: Eyewitness Identifications: A National Survey on Procedures

By Nyerere Davidson, NIJ Communications Specialist; and Brett Chapman, PhD NIJ Research Analyst; Washington, D.C.

To learn what agencies across the United States are doing about eyewitness identification, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) awarded the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) a grant to develop and conduct a nationally representative survey. The survey collected statistical data and descriptive information on current policies, practices, and training protocols related to the eyewitness identification process. The purpose was to describe the state of the field with respect to eyewitness identification procedures and to assess agency progress and change since the 1999 publication of NIJ’s Eyewitness Evidence: A Guide for Law Enforcement (Eyewitness Evidence Guide).

The PERF research had three components: A review of the research literature on eyewitness identification procedures, a national survey of a stratified random sample of law enforcement agencies in the United States, and a series of in-depth follow-up interviews of officials in 30 selected agencies.

The results clearly show that law enforcement agencies employ a variety of eyewitness identification procedures with photo lineups by far being the most common. A significant number of agencies have not fully implemented the recommendations from the 1999 NIJ research report related to interviewing witnesses, training officers on how to implement a lineup, and instructing witnesses before the lineup.

Variety across the United States

The survey examined five critical eyewitness procedures: photo lineups, show-ups, live line-ups, mug shot searches, and composites. In general, when agencies use a particular procedure, they use it for most if not all Part I offenses in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) Unifrom Crime Reporting (UCR) system.

Following is a list of the procedures, the percentage of agencies that reported using them, and the percentage without written policies related to the procedures.

  • Photo Lineups
    • Used by 94.1 percent of the responding agencies
    • 64.3 percent of which report no written policy
  • Show-ups
    • Used by 61.8 percent of the responding agencies
    • 76.9 percent of which report no written policy
  • Composites
    • Used by 35.5 percent of the responding agencies
    • 90.6 percent of which report no written policy
  • Mug shot searches
    • Used by 28.8 percent of the responding agencies
    • 92.1 percent of which report no written policy
  • Live Lineups
    • Used by 21.4 percent of the responding agencies
    • 84 percent of which report no written policy

Although most agencies do not have written policies, many do provide training on how to conduct eyewitness procedures:
  • 68 percent of agencies that conduct photo lineups provide training on photo lineup procedures.
  • 44 percent of agencies that conduct live lineups provide training on how to administer a live lineup.

Large agencies (500 or more sworn officers) are more likely to provide training on both photo and live lineup procedures than small agencies (25 or fewer sworn officers). Of the agencies that provide training, half provide their own training, and more than a quarter receive training from prosecutors.

Witness Instructions

More than 80 percent of agencies that use photo lineups and 88 percent that use live lineups tell witnesses and victims that “the perpetrator may or may not be present” before viewing the lineup as recommended by the 1999 NIJ Eyewitness Evidence Guide. Just over half provide several additional instructions recommended by the Eyewitness Evidence Guide, including telling witnesses that it is as important to clear innocent persons from suspicion as to identify guilty parties. More than half of the agencies train administrators to “avoid saying anything that may influence the witness’s selection.” Fewer than 10 percent of all the responding agencies reported having training
for how to compose live lineups.

While agencies use a number of different approaches to give instructions to eyewitnesses, standardized instructions (either written or verbal) are more likely to be used when officers administer photo and live lineups. Just over 40 percent of agencies reported using standardized written instructions for photo lineups. Agencies also regularly provide witnesses with additional types of specific instructions.

Size of Lineups

Photo lineups: Of agencies that use photo lineups, nearly 70 percent allow only one suspect in each lineup; 14.4 percent do not have a clear policy on the number of suspects allowed in the lineup. Most agencies (82.6 percent) use five fillers in photo lineups.

Live lineups: Of agencies that use live lineups, 60.8 percent allow only one suspect per lineup; 27.8 percent of the agencies reported that they have no clear policy on the number of suspects that should be in the lineup. Ninety-six percent of agencies use four or more fillers in live lineups.

Blind versus Non-blind

A non-blind administrator knows which of the photographs or individuals in the line is the suspect. Most agencies reported using non-blind administrators for both photo and live lineups. For photo lineups, 69 percent of responding agencies said they used a non-blind administrator. For live lineups, 92 percent reported using a non-blind administrator. However, in in-depth interviews with 30 agencies following the survey, several agencies reported adopting blind procedures and found the implementation to be straightforward with minimal resistance from sworn personnel.

Sequential versus Simultaneous

The most common procedure for administering both photo lineups and live lineups is the simultaneous presentation of suspects, which is used by 65.2 percent of agencies, rather than presenting photos of individuals or presenting individuals one by one.

Witness Viewings

Less than half of the agencies—41.9 percent—had a clear policy for the number of times a witness could view a lineup. Just over a quarter of the agencies allow witnesses to see photographs only once, and approximately 10 percent allow witnesses to see the photographs twice. ♦

Recommended Actions

Please cite as:

Nyerere Davidson and Brett Chapman, "Eyewitness Identifications: A National Survey on Procedures," Research in Brief, The Police Chief 80 (September 2013): 14–15.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 9, September 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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