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Police Lineup

Lining up suspects for witnesses to point out who did it.

A Truth in Television trope, but fiction often plays with it. Police lineups in the real world are Serious Business, because the self-reinforcing nature of memory means that a witness who makes a mis-identification once becomes more and more certain the more times they repeat the mistake.

Shots along these lines are sometimes used to show the main cast of a series... and to imply that they're all unsavory characters or criminals, even though that isn't how lineups work. Bonus points if none of them look at all alike and there isn't even a common gender in the group.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Comic Books 
  • In the Harry Dresden graphic novel Welcome to the Jungle, Harry ponders what sort of supernatural threat might've killed a night watchman at Lincoln Park Zoo. When he's considering each of the "usual suspects", a panel depicts a Police Lineup of several inhuman monsters.

    Film 
  • The Usual Suspects had the guys playing around as a Throw It In, so in the movie, none of them were taking it seriously. That the suspects look very different is justified by the fact that they were actually brought together so that they could be used as part of a plan to eliminate a witness that could identify Keyser Söze.
    • While the ostensible reason was that only their voice was being identified. Each of them is instructed to read out the phrase, "Hand me the keys, you fucking cocksucker". Hilarity Ensues as the criminals do their best to ridicule the proceedings.
  • Parodied in the George of the Jungle Live-Action Adaptation, in which Lyle takes part in a lineup. In normal police lineups, the people hired are meant to have similar physical features to the convicted/accused. What happened was that Lyle ended up standing next to jungle natives who weren't even the same skin colour as he was and they were of different shapes and sizes.
  • Running Scared (1986): Detectives Hughes and Costanza are harassing a minor criminal. They put him in a lineup, but the other people in the line-up are all police officers in uniform. Hughes (Billy Crystal) pretends to be the victim, identifying the suspect in one of his trademark accents.
  • One of the Police Academy movies had a police lineup where the lights were turned on in the witness' room right when he stood and pointed out the criminal. When the criminal sees the witness pointing at him, he immediately starts shouting I'll Kill You!, so the witness points to a priest standing in the line-up instead.
  • Strange Brew: After Brewmeister Smith's henchmen attempt to get Bob and Doug out of the way by stowing Pam away in the McKenzie Brothers' van, cutting their brake cable, and leading them to drown in the pier, the duo survives by using beer bottles to breathe underwater. Shortly after, the police dive in and arrest them, leading to some funny scenes, including a police lineup where the McKenzie Bros. are among the suspects and they point out Pam.
  • In A Bronx Tale, young Colagero is shown asked to identify a killer - his idol, local gang boss Sonny - in a police lineup. Colagero lies, saying that the culprit isn't there - where he lives, you don't betray people by ratting them out like that.
  • The Player sees Tim Robbins' character, movie producer Griffin Mill, appear in a lineup. The thing is, he's completely guilty of the crime he's appearing in the lineup for, but the one witness to Mill murdering a screenwriter incorrectly identifies a police detective who was planted in the lineup as a fake, thus allowing Mill to literally get away with murder.
  • Parodied in the first The Santa Clause movie, when Scott Calvin/Santa's ex-wife is brought to a police lineup... of mall and charity Santas (none of which are Scott), several of whom also prove to be morons by turning the wrong direction when asked.
  • After Harry's triple murder on front of a church in Christmas Evil, bunch of men in Santa-costumes are taken in by the police for a lineup.

    Literature 
  • Played with in a short story by Ian Rankin. The narrator, while at a police station, is persuaded to stand in a lineup with a suspect, due to his resemblance to the suspect. The witness identifies him. He did it, and the police suspected him from the start.
  • In the Robert Asprin book Myth-Nomers and Impervections, Skeeve is a part of a police line-up where all the other people in the line-up are uniformed policemen with green scales, where he is a medium-sized human-looking fellow who is, obviously, not in a police uniform.

    Live Action TV 
  • Law & Order and its Spinoffs do this, but not that much. Usually done when there is good reason for The Law of Conservation of Detail.
    • One notable version had a pair of identical twins that were covering for each other - one was a notorious mobster, the other a college professor. The police are forced to put both in the lineup, but the witness without hesitation fingers the guilty party. Turns out she's a nurse, and she easily spotted the body wear caused the mobster's heavy drinking which distinguished him just enough from his twin.
  • In Life on Mars, Sam persuades a witness to identify a suspect in a lineup by assuring the witness that he'll be in a room adjoining that occupied by the suspects, behind one-way glass. Unfortunately for Sam and the witness, The Seventies version isn't as pleasant.
  • The Dick Van Dyke Show: Robert Petrie was put in a lineup, and identified by the victim/witness. Rob was innocent, though.
  • Played with multiple times in Reno 911!.
  • In one Seinfeld episode, Kramer is paid to stand in police lineups to fill empty spots. This backfires when a hobo who is angry at Kramer identifies him as the guy who did it. In fairness, the way the officer running the lineup posed the question ("Do you recognise any of these men?") could leave Homeless Guy's motives for pointing at Kramer, whom he did in fact recognise, open to interpretation.
  • Mr. Bean: Mr Bean once got robbed in the park and caught the thief by putting a trashcan over him and poking him with a pencil. The thief gets away while Bean flags down a cop, so he has to go to the station to identify the perp out of a lineup. He is unable to do so until he has trashcans placed over them and he pokes them until he identifies the thief from the way he says "ouch".
  • Monk:
    • Parodied in the episode, "Mr. Monk and the Red-Headed Stranger" where there is a lineup for a blind witness - in this case, Willie Nelson and a group of volunteers go into a room with Ms. Mass, the witness, standing in the observation room. The lineup men then each read off a card that says, "Tell anybody about this and I'll kill you." The first and second volunteers do not clear (respectively, a guy with a gruff voice and a guy with a nasal voice), but then she identifies Nelson.
    • "Mr. Monk and the Captain's Marriage" - Stottlemeyer suspects that a hothead sergeant named Ryan Sharkey, Jr. is having an affair with his wife Karen. He takes a photo from Monk and Natalie and manages to get into a witness lineup that Randy has volunteered Sharkey into participating in. Monk and Natalie join Randy and the witness, Gerald Vengal, in the viewing room as the volunteers enter. Sharkey insults Stottlemeyer, causing a fight to break out in the lineup room, busting the lineup completely.
  • When Kima is shot on The Wire, they can't do a line-up because she is still in the hospital, so they use a photo array. Bunk tries to "fat finger" Wee Bey, the man they think is the shooter ( Correctly.) But Kima can't remember and refuses to lie.
  • Little Britain had this in an ep. Too bad the victim is a Dirty Old Woman and all she does is phhhhwoooaaaar he's gorgeous!
  • In the The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air episode "Fresh Prince: The Movie" note  Will had to pick a suspect out of a prison line up, the murderer being very tall and the other two suspects are midgets. When Will picks him the policeman asks, "Are you sure it was him?"
  • Bottom had an episode devoted to a scam pulled by Dave Hedgehog, Spudgun, and Mrs Hedgehog to commit a petty crime, get the police to assemble a line-up, and collect a small payment for their services as stand-in members of said line-up. Hilarity Ensues, as usual.
  • In Drop the Dead Donkey, Helen is involved in a carjacking and has to attend a line-up. When she thinks she sees her attacker, she loses her rag and decks him. The punchline? "And at what point did you realise he was the police inspector?"
  • A serious version close to real life is often used on Cases of the 1st Department. The investigators have to make sure that a judge and/or a public prosecutor is present during the identification. One time they have to figure out a different method when the culprit's photo leaked out and the prosecuter informed them that no judge would allow it as evidence, because victims would recognize him from media. Sometimes photos were used instead of lining people up, such as when they needed to identify a dangerious criminal and they had no fingerprints or DNA, and they had to prove that he really is their guy.

    Music 

  • Spoofed in the "On the Run" music video which is done like a trailer for an action movie, including a line-up featuring a blood-splattered Beyoncé. "Oh come on!"

    Newspaper Comics 
  • The Far Side parodied this with a lineup of normal looking guys and one weird-looking monster creature wearing a beanie hat. The witness identified the monster saying "That's him! I would recognize that silly little hat anywhere!"

    Stand Up Comedy 
  • Phil Jupitus has this routine in which a woman sues an elephant at london zoo for throwing a log at her, and had to identify the elephant in a line up. Jupitus then impersonates three aggressive thugs standing in a line, a fourth man staring up, mouth agape, at something next to him, and the elephant in position number five. The woman then fails to identify the elephant, to the great surprise of number two, who ends up mouthing the phrase "I'm not the elephant" several times.

    Tabletop RPG 
  • Traveller supplement "76 Patrons". One of the adventure seeds involves the police asking an adventurer to participate in a line-up because of his resemblance to the suspect they're really after. If things go well (the suspect is identified as the criminal), the police are pleased with the adventurer. If things go badly (the victim identifies the adventurer as the criminal) the police are angry with the adventurer, and are more likely to harass him later.

    Video Games 

    Webcomics 

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • Family Guy:
    • There was a gag similar to that in Police Academy.
    • An episode's cutaway gag had him ask certain people in the line-up to step forward, then act out various improv acting scenarios "Ok, pretend like you haven't seen Number 3 in a while and are really glad to see him!"
    • The episode when Chris identifies the store robber in the police lineup. Peter's stupidity told Chris was the witness and gave the address leading to a witness protection program which leads the plot of this episode.
  • The Simpsons:
    • In the episode "The Springfield Files", Homer is asked to identify the alien he saw from a lineup which consisted of Chewbacca, ALF, Marvin the Martian, Gort and Kang (or Kodos) from the various "Treehouse of Horror" installments.
    • In "Milhouse Doesn't Live Here Anymore", Homer and a random bum talk about a time they met in a police line-up.
      Homer: Hey, I know you. We met in a police line up.
      Bum: Oh yeah, yeah. You know number 2 and number 4 are an item now.
      Homer: You don't have to tell me, I was number 3.
    • In "Krusty Gets Busted" when Homer has to identify Krusty among other clowns.
      Homer: If the crime is making me laugh, they're all guilty. [laughs]
      Wiggum: No, which one is the robber!
      Homer: Oh, definitely number...[laughs]
      Wiggum: Simpson
      Homer: [laughs]
      Wiggum: Simpson!
      Homer: 4
  • The Life & Times of Tim: Done in the first episode, in which Tim has been rumored to have been raped by a bum (it's not true though) so his boss has him do a police lineup of possible rapists.
  • The Amazing Adrenalini Brothers: Xan is accused of something. Everybody there is also wearing a blue leotard with a letter on it (Xan wears one of these with an X), and it goes alphabetically, turning it into an Overly Long Gag.
  • A quick sight gag on Garfield and Friends episode "Binky Goes Bad" where Binky (a clown) is framed for crimes by a guy who looks exactly like him. He is put in a police lineup where he is quickly identified as the perpetrator...because he's the only one that is dressed like a clown. Everyone else is wearing gray suits.

Police Code for EverythingCrime and Punishment TropesPrecrime Arrest

alternative title(s): Suspect Lineup
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