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Mug Shot Lineups Leave the Polaroid Era

A new Web application is automating mug shop lineups for detectives in Chesterfield County, Va.

by / September 13, 2012

A new Web tool is allowing detectives in Chesterfield County, Va., to focus more on investigating crimes and less on office tasks.

Called the Mug Shot Lineup Application, the program automatically selects six random photos of suspects for a witness or victim of a crime to view and potentially identify. Previously detectives and forensic technicians would spend at least an hour manually choosing images to build a suitable mug shot lineup. The app completes the process in five minutes.

The change was a long time coming, according to county CIO Barry Condrey.

Before the digital age, a mug shot lineup was made from Polaroid pictures taken of existing photos, which could greatly vary in quality. When digital cameras started being used, the images were of better quality, but they were stored in various file folders and cabinets — doing little to improve speed and efficiency when selecting a mug shot lineup.

“They were large, difficult to modify and it became a real burden for them,” Condrey said about the work detectives once had to do on suspect photos. “Doing this online has helped them quite a bit.”

Jack Ritchie, commander with the Chesterfield County Police Department’s Administrative Support Bureau, said an additional benefit is that now instead of witnesses or victims waiting an hour or more to view a lineup, they can see it in minutes, with their memory more fresh.

The new system also has improved the procedural process for mug shot lineups. Photos are randomized and flipped over one after the other, as opposed to a book or all six being laid out at one time. The printed mug shot lineup also comes with a cover sheet that displays the exact words the detective says to a witness.

“Those words are printed for them, which really helps ensure the quality of the process,” Ritchie said. “It sounds funny, but that’s a big deal to make sure we’re doing this right.”

Online since November 2011, the new system enables detectives to build the mug shot lineup themselves from their office or anyplace they have a laptop and access to the county network. They log in to the application, set the appropriate attributes — such as date of birth, race, gender, hair and eye color — and the program’s random number generator selects the photos for the lineup.

If some of the people selected in a lineup look too similar side-by-side, the images can be shuffled or replaced as necessary. In addition, photos that aren’t in the database can be imported and placed into the lineup.

Lineups can be saved by case number for future use and can be printed or viewed online.

Melissa Milton, a lead programmer analyst for Chesterfield County, spearheaded the project. A former forensic technician for the Chesterfield County Police Department, Milton had first-hand experience manually producing mug shot lineups.

With Milton’s experience with the police department, Condrey felt she was an obvious choice to lead the development.

“She’s worked here for a number of years and when this need came up, she was a natural fit,” Condrey said of Milton. “So the person who used to be the technician doing the Polaroids of Polaroids is now the person who actually wrote the application for the high technology approach to this.”


Developed in-house by members of the Chesterfield County Information Systems Technology Department, the app took approximately eight months to build. The app was designed using Microsoft .Net Framework 4 and is written in the C# programming language. SQL Server 2008 is the database back end.

The database is Chesterfield County Police Department’s own stock of mug shots taken of people officers have arrested. The department transmits the photos to the Virginia State Police database, but keeps a copy on its own system.

The database of photos is taking some time to build up. Ritchie said old printed photos from the old manual mug shot process weren’t scanned for use in the new system in order to maintain uniformity among the images.

“The old pictures were kept out because one of the things that’s key in a mug shot lineup is consistency,” Ritchie explained. “We make sure we have the proper background for all of our pictures and that everybody has their face framed the same way. We have to make sure the consistency wouldn’t affect the individual selecting a person out of a lineup.”

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Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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