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Chicago Police: Photo arrays are preferred way to ID suspects

Six beefy men — including former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s nephew — stood shoulder to shoulder in a Chicago Police Department lineup back in 2004.

Witnesses viewed them through a one-way mirror, but none identified the nephew, Richard “R.J.” Vanecko, as the man who punched David Koschman, who fell onto a sidewalk and later died. The case was re-opened in 2011 after a Chicago Sun-Times investigation. Vanecko pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter last year and served 60 days in jail.

Now the department is phasing out such traditionally used physical lineups in favor of showing victims and witnesses photo arrays. Like physical lineups, photo arrays include the suspect and five other people who are supposed to look similar in terms of race, sex, height, weight, age, physical appearance and clothing. Mugshots from previous arrests are used in the arrays.

Earlier this month, police Supt. Garry McCarthy approved a new policy governing the department’s use of photo arrays and live lineups. The policy follows a successful pilot program launched in October 2013 on the Far South Side, said John Escalante, the chief of detectives.

The Chicago Police Department is divided into three areas: South, Central and North. The pilot program involved Area South, where an estimated 90 percent of the witness identifications are done through photo arrays, Escalante said.

The remainder of the detective division has been slower to convert. Photo arrays are used in about 40 percent of the identifications in Area Central and about 30 percent of those in Area North.

There were many reasons for the change, including cost, Escalante said. On average, a physical lineup takes about five hours to arrange and carry out. That can cause the detectives who handle the lineup to rack up overtime.

Physical lineups are harder to arrange than in the past because the department processes suspects more quickly out of lockups, Escalante said. That makes it more difficult to find detainees willing to serve as “filler” candidates in lineups. (The other five men in the Vanecko lineup were cops, not detainees. The department’s policy says using cops as fillers should be a last resort.)

Escalante also pointed to studies that have shown that photo lineups are considered as accurate as physical lineups. A recent survey of major police departments found about 94 percent of them use photo lineups, he added.

Detectives can still use physical lineups when they express a preference for them, Escalante said. One reason might be that the witness says he or she would rather view a physical lineup than a photo array, he said.

Last year, the department conducted approximately 350 physical lineups and about twice as many photo lineups.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez is not critical of the department’s new policy, but believes that physical lineups should still be employed in some cases — and not photo arrays, said her spokeswoman, Sally Daly. Those cases include those in which the suspect’s appearance has changed since a mugshot was taken and cases in which the suspect has never been arrested and no mugshot exists, Daly said.

As the department converts to photo arrays, it’s also being required under a new law to videotape when witnesses and victims are shown photo arrays or undergo physical lineups. The law was intended to serve as a safeguard against detectives trying to sway witnesses into picking one person in a lineup over another person.