The use of police identity parades in the UK criminal justice system

Identification of an offender

The identification of an offender is a key aspect of any criminal conviction. This identification may be done by the victim of the crime and/or witnesses if there are any available.

If someone can be identified as the offender, this will be one of the first pieces of evidence used in a criminal trial, with both the victim and any witnesses required to repeat the identification in front of the court.

Police identity parades

The traditional method of identifying an offender was to use a police identity parade. This involved the suspect being required to line up alongside others of similar height and appearance, with either the victim or a witness able to view the line-up from behind a screen. Often the potential suspects would be required to repeat a sentence which the victim or the witness will have heard. This would enable the victim or the witness to identify the offender both by sight and voice.

During a police identity parade, it would usually be the case that the police were aware of whom the suspect was, due to their investigations, and the identity parade would be used simply as confirmation that the suspect was in fact the offender. In these situations, the other members of the identity parade may be police officers or simply people the police have picked off the street.

Potential issues with traditional police identity parade

Other than the problems of wasting police time in looking for suitable participants – it used to take an average of 10 weeks to organise a traditional identity parades in some areas – the following were key problems when using a traditional identity parade:

  • emotional issues for victims and witnesses;
  • potential for police interference;
  • concerns for the safety of those taking part in the line-up.

Emotional issues for victims and witnesses

Often when the crime involved was a violent or a sexual crime it was difficult for a victim to again be faced with their attacker. This could also be the case for witnesses to a very serious crime. Having to re-live the event could often be very traumatic.

Furthermore, the sterile atmosphere of the police station would not always be something a victim was used to, which would often affect them in an emotional capacity.

Potential for police interference

When the victim or witness is placed with an option of potential offenders in front of them it may be much easier for the police officers to influence their decision towards a certain individual.

Concerns for the safety of those taking part in the line-up

One of the biggest issues faced by a member of the public when taking part in a police identity parade was that they would be in the presence of a real criminal and, depending on the crime, they may fear for their safety. However, their safety should have been assured by the presence of police officers in the line-up and/or the officers coordinating the line-up.

Video identification

The traditional method of identifying an offender using an identification parade has been largely overtaken by the use of video identification (the last traditional police identity parade carried out by the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS), for example, was in Haringey in 2008).

Video identification involves the victim or witness being shown a film of video-clips or images, which include the suspect and at least eight other volunteers’ images stored on a database, which are similar to the suspect in terms of age, general appearance and status in life. The system used for video identification is called Viper – video identification parade electronic recording. Its database contains thousands of images.

Video identification is preferred by the courts as it is quicker, fairer, cheaper and less stressful for victims and witnesses as they are no longer required to identify people face-to-face in real life.

Other methods of identification

  • E-FIT – a computer generated representation of an unknown person.
  • Caught on Camera – the Caught on Camera unit publishes images of suspects the police need help in identifying on the police website.
  • Specialist technical voice match – a recording containing a sample of the suspect’s voice, together with a batch of ‘similar voices’, is used in a ‘voice identification parade’.
Article written by...
Nicola Laver LLB
Nicola Laver LLB

Nicola on LinkedInNicola on Twitter

A non-practising solicitor, Nicola is also a fully qualified journalist. For the past 20 years, she has worked as a legal journalist, editor and author.