The Cops Who Abused Photoshop

Police in Oregon manipulated a photo to make a suspect look more like the perpetrator.

U.S. District Court of Oregon

Last week, The Oregonian newspaper exposed what ought to be a headline-grabbing scandal in the course of reporting on an otherwise obscure criminal trial.

The dicey behavior began when Portland cops investigating a series of bank robberies felt they knew the perpetrator’s identity: Tyrone Lamont Allen, a 50-year-old whose face is covered by several prominent tattoos.

But there was a problem. None of the bank tellers had noted seeing any face tattoos on the robber. And no tattoos were visible in recovered surveillance footage.

Rather than looking for other suspects, or even proceeding with a photo lineup knowing that the tellers were unlikely to positively identify Allen, the police officers turned to a piece of software to solve their problem.

“They covered up every one of his tattoos using Photoshop,” The Oregonian’s Maxine Bernstein wrote. “Police then presented the altered image of Allen with photos of five similar-looking men to the tellers for identification. They didn’t tell anyone that they’d changed Allen’s photo. Some of the tellers picked out Allen.”

There’s more. The cops in question did not know that they were doing anything wrong. Neither did the local U.S. attorney. Indeed, they still stand by their actions. The Oregonian quoted a police forensic criminalist, Mark Weber, as testifying, “I basically painted over the tattoos. Almost like applying electronic makeup.’’

Then the paper quoted the federal prosecutor in the case endorsing the approach:

Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Maloney defended police actions. “The whole idea was to make Mr. Allen blend in—so his photo wouldn’t stand out,’’ he said. “These procedures were prudent. They were appropriate.’’ Maloney said the altering of Allen’s photo was done to “look like the disguises that were on the robber,’’ who wore a baseball-style hat and glasses, with no tattoos visible.

Maloney affirmed that the intent was to alter the photo for the lineup so that the suspect looked more like the robber—and finds that both prudent and appropriate!

After that, nothing should have surprised me, but my jaw still dropped a bit when I got to a quote from the man who ordered the Photoshop manipulation, Detective Brett Hawkinson, “a nearly 18-year Police Bureau veteran assigned to the FBI’s task force on bank robberies and the lead investigator on the case.”

Hawkinson said in cross-examination that altering photographs was “standard practice among investigators,” and that he learned about it through “on the job training” and from his supervisors.

Note that after employing the tactic, neither the Portland police nor the FBI nor the U.S. Attorney’s Office disclosed it. A defense lawyer noticed on his own.

The Oregonian reported that Weber, who did the Photoshop job, “testified that he didn’t write a report because it wasn’t part of the Police Bureau’s standard operating procedures” and that “he had changed suspect photos for other lineups before but wasn’t aware of any bureau protocol that expressly allowed that.”

The criminal-defense attorney Scott Greenfield put it well. “Contrary to the common assumption that eyewitness identification is strong evidence, it’s long been known, and overwhelmingly empirically proven, that eyewitness identifications make for very strong testimony but very unreliable evidence,” he explained on his website. “This is particularly true for cross-racial identifications. When photo arrays … are done properly, they still present grave problems of mis-identification. When done with altered pics, they’re just goofy.”

What remains unclear is how many innocents have been identified in Portland and beyond in goofy lineups where their photos were altered to look more like the perpetrator.

Society has already entered an era when technology permits the easy manipulation of images, video, and audio. One would expect law-enforcement professionals to discern the perils of participating in such manipulation. That they do not underscores the need for more oversight by civilians and stricter requirements about what must be disclosed to defense attorneys.

Finally, it is thanks to a court reporter working a beat at an old-fashioned broadsheet that the public learned about this matter at all. Support your local newspaper.