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Police Lineup

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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 usually only involve one suspect mixed in with a bunch of similar-looking extras. The idea isn't so much to identify the suspect but rather to confirm that the witness can reliably pick them out from a crowd. This is 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. So if the witness can't pick the right person out of the lineup (and in some cases, the actual suspect may not even BE in the lineup at all), then their testimony can't be used as evidence against that suspect in a court of law.

Fiction, on the other hand, seems to be running with the notion that the cops either arrested everyone they could find who vaguely fit the description, or just rounded up a bunch of local lowlifes and need the witness to tell them which one they get to lock up this week. Thus, a lot of fictional police lineups will feature a varied and colourful collection of scoundrels with little in common. Bonus points if there isn't even a common race or gender in the group. 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.

Some aspects of this trope also seem to be be conflated with photographing perps during processing, since both involve criminal suspects standing in front of a brightly-lit wall with demarcated height measurements. Of course, that would imply that everyone's mugshot is a magnification of a larger group portrait, which is just silly.

See also Mugshot Montage.


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  • A commercial for Donkey Kong '94 has some cops asking a man in a full-body cast to identify the "animal" that put him traction. After looking over a row of tough-looking punks, he sees a ferocious gorilla among them, causing him to scream and fall to pieces.
  • A 2002 Cartoon Network spot has Wile E. Coyote being asked to identify the Road Runner in a lineup that includes Tweety and Foghorn Leghorn. The nervous Coyote, upon being asked who he was chasing in the desert, keeps signing for #4 (Beaky Buzzard), but nobody buys it.
    Detective: It was 3, right?
    Lieutenant: It's always 3.

  • 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.

    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.
  • Max Allan Collins describes such a moment as the final straw on his brief and generally unhappy run on Batman. To wit: the story involved a new mime-themed villain, and had a scene where the police rounded up a bunch of identical-looking street mimes for a lineup. Upon finding that artist Dave Cockrum had completely ignored this and drawn a lineup of wildly different-looking mines, Collins turned in his notice.

    Comic Strips 
  • 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!"
  • The Wizard of Id. The King is about to give a Balcony Speech when someone shouts "The King is a fink!" The King recognises Lone Haranguer's voice, so Sir Rodney comes up with the idea of having everyone in the crowd come up to the Kind one-at-a-time and say "The King is a fink!" Needless to say, the peasants enjoy this a lot more than the King does, and Sir Rodney ends up getting a lash for every one that just called the King a fink and got away with it.

    Films — Animation 
  • In the Novelization of Turning Red, Ming tells Mei "You never know who you’ll have to identify in a police lineup".

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Averted in the 1998 Australian film The Interview, where the suspect's lawyer advises him to refuse any request that he take part in a lineup, with the implication being that it's one of dubious methods being used by the detectives to pin the crime on him.
  • 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. Here, the other people in the lineup are of a variety of different shapes and sizes...which, naturally, are the traits used to dismiss them as the culprit instead of the more obvious fact that, this being in Africa, Lyle is clearly the only white guy among the bunch. In addition, Lyle is conspicuously hiding his face behind someone else.
  • 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. Costanza (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, as the police were given the instructions that Scott will probably be dressed up as Santa. #5 is a dwarf and #3 is black, raising the question of why they were even brought in. When they're asked to turn right, #6 faces in the wrong direction.
  • 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.
  • In Kindergarten Cop when a witness need to identify Crisp.
  • Sidewalk Stories: A darkly comic version of one. When the artist is pictured getting arrested for the father's murder, he imagines hiimself in a police lineup—sandwiched between two white men in three-piece suits, while he is a black man wearing an Institutional Apparel striped convict outfit.
  • Done face-to-face between suspect and witness at a police station in Detective Story. The witness was brought in to help convict a dubious Back-Alley Doctor but it turns out she was bought and doesn't recognize the doctor in the line up.
  • Untamed Heart: After Adam gets attacked by the same two men who tried to rape Caroline earlier, they get put in a police lineup, and she names them unhesitatingly.

  • In his autobiography Boy, Roald Dahl recalls how when he and his friends pranked the sweetshop owner Mrs Pratchett by putting a dead mouse in a sweet jar, the entire school was made to line up around the playground, so that Mrs Pratchett could identify the culprits, all the while muttering nasty comments about boys in general under her breath.
  • 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.
  • One appears in The Shadow of the Lion after Benito is accused of murdering a bishop. It's a setup — Benito was only accused after Marco was proven to have a solid alibi, and the authorities realize that the accuser didn't know the two (half-)brothers don't look related. Sure enough, he can't pick Benito out as the person he "saw" lurking outside the bishop's home.
  • Referenced in Soul Music — two members of the Anhk-Morpork City watch witness someone driving by on the Disc's first (and only) motorcycle. When one is asked if he could identify the driver, the response is "If I didn't, it would have to be one hell of an identity parade!" (The rider is Death.)

    Live-Action TV 
  • In the mini-series House of Frankenstein (1997), a woman who was bitten by a werewolf is called in to identify the man who attacked her. As they stare at each other in the lineup, she starts to channel her werewolf side and claims not to recognize him.
  • Our Miss Brooks: In "Reunion," Miss Brooks imagines Mr. Conklin, Mr. Munsee and Mr. Talbot in a police lineup.
  • 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 '70s 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.
  • In The Wire episode "Sentencing", when Kima is shot, 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?"
  • The Bottom episode "Parade" was 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.
  • In Day Break (2006), Hopper's neighbor/housekeeper Mr. Zeitoun identifies Buchalter and Fencik as the false plumbers using this method.
  • Power Rangers Ninja Steel: In "The Royal Rival", after being arrested for stealing a cow, Victor and Monty are forced to stand in one with four other suspects. The witness asked to identify the cow thieves is the cow.
  • Brooklyn Nine-Nine:
    • When they need to fill out a lineup, Jake asks his large and intimidating sergeant to play "Scary Terry". Terry enjoys playing the role, since he "says what the real Terry is thinking."
      Scary Terry: THIS IS TAKING TOO LONG! I'm gonna miss the farmers' market!
    • In one Cold Open, the witness never saw the suspect's face since she was hiding, but she heard him singing the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way." So Jake has the suspects sing a (surprisingly good) rendition right there in line, and gets so caught up in it himself that he temporarily forgets why they're there.
      Jake: Ah, chills. Literal chills.
      Witness: It was Number Five. Number Five killed my brother.
      Jake: Oh my God, I forgot about that part.
  • In the Broad City episode "Mochalatta Chills," Todd is attacked by a woman who says, "Nice razor scooter, pencil dick. You aborted Macklemore motherfucker. You fucking look-alike Albert Nobbs." Todd is forced to take the day off to look at a lineup of women who all repeat the insults.
    Todd: I wish I hadn't reported this.
  • CSI: NY: During "Life Sentence," a recently released perp Mac & his first partner, Bill Hunt, had locked up 17 years prior, stalks the two men, pickpockets Mac, and sprays the Crime Lab with a hail of gunfire from another high-rise. This prompts Hunt to lure the guy into an alley and go all Jack Bauer on him. The guy then goes to the precinct to report someone trying to kill him and names Hunt, who gets put in a line up, but the guy refuses to identify him.
  • A downplayed version would have happened in an episode of Grange Hill, in series 2. The headmaster tells the school that the caretaker had reason to speak to four boys; he does not know their names, but is sure he will recognise them again. The headmaster offers the boys a chance to step forward, or for everybody to form a line; the boys choose to step forward.

  • 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!"
  • The gatefold of Cheap Trick's Dream Police record has them in a police lineup, with each band member appearing twice in the lineup (once dressed normally, once dressed in their "Dream Police" uniforms from the front cover photo). The also appear as the witnesses. These would get recreated in the video for the title track.

    Tabletop Games 
  • 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 
  • This is a minigame on Rayman: Raving Rabbids 2.
  • In Max Payne 2, Detective Valerie Winterson asks a witness to identify a suspect in a murder at a luxury apartment complex from a lineup of three women, one of which is Max Payne's ally Mona Sax, who are asked to repeat the phrase "You are nothing but a one-armed bandit". The witness identifies Sax as the suspect—after asking why he isn't being asked to identify any of the murderous Cleaners he saw at the same place and being told to just focus. Max then talks to the witness to get the real story, which is that he saw Sax in a gunfight with the Cleaners, but Winterson wasn't willing to listen to him. This is a clue that she's stonewalling the investigation on purpose.

    Web Comics 

    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!"
    • In "To Love and Die in Dixie", Chris identifies a store robber in a police lineup. Peter stupidly walked into the lineup, told the robber that Chris was the witness and gave his address, necessitating entry into a witness protection program which leads the plot of this episode.
  • The Simpsons:
    • In "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.
  • On The Fairly OddParents! episode "Inspection Detection", when Timmy is suspected of shoplifting at a local department store while prepping for Fairy Inspection Day and cannot explain where he got the stuff he wished for (at the risk of losing Cosmo and Wanda), and his attempt at using a lie-detector to prove he didn't shoplift backfires on him big-time, he's put in a police lineup with Chester, AJ, and Francis. The real shoplifter turns out to be Francis after Timmy finds a stolen walkie-talkie in his pants before the former could proceed to beat up the latter, but since his parents and police were too stupid to listen, Timmy was forced to go on the run to clear his name, and successfully proves it when Cosmo shapeshifts into a surveillance camera and catches Francis on video stealing a tub of lard.
  • One episode of Milo Murphy's Law has Milo, Melissa, and Zack witness a robbery by Zippy, the World's Fastest Koala. He's placed in a lineup that otherwise consists of people. Melissa quickly identifies Zippy, at which point the police officer says "Well, if you just told us it was a koala in the first place..." begging the question of why Zippy would have been included in the lineup.

Alternative Title(s): Suspect Lineup