A LAWYER has condemned an “extraordinary” police inquiry into a child abuse case after officers pixellated out the eyes of the suspects photographed as part of the investigation when the victim said he would recognise them.
Simon Collins, lawyer for In Care Abuse Survivors Scotland (Incas), said that, while specific details of individuals were sometimes obscured in photo identification parades, such as distinctive tattoos or a particular scar, he had never heard of the eyes of suspects being obscured.
In response to a complaint, Police Scotland claimed the photographs had been altered in order to “maintain fairness for court purposes”.
This was necessary, the force said, “with a view to ensuring that all photographs had to be of equal visual quality to ensure that the photograph of the suspect does not stand out amongst the others … this is why the photographs were presented in such a way and this was at the instruction of Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service” (COPFS).
The issue came to light in 2015 after police asked abuse survivor Richard Tracey to single out the man who had mistreated him in an Ayrshire foster care throughout the late-1970s and early-1980s.
The pictures were pixellated, which meant he was unable to see the eyes of the men he was being asked to identify. The 48-year-old said this meant he was unable to identify anyone, as so many years had passed.
Mr Tracey said: “I had told Kilmarnock Police I would recognise him by his eyes. Perhaps that was my mistake.”
Police Scotland said the photographs were “in the format shown [to the applicant] to conform with fairness in court” but the police watchdog later ruled the force’s explanation was inadequate.
In response to the ruling, Detective Chief Inspector John Hogg wrote to Mr Tracey, explaining that where a photograph of a suspect is not held in police files an alternative can be sought, with agreement from COPFS.
However, because the photograph obtained of the suspect was of a different quality, all the pictures were altered so that it did not stand out.
Lawyer Mr Collins described the explanation as “very strange”. I’ve never heard of a situation like that,” he said. “If a victim or witness was saying, ‘This person had purple eyes’ and all the others had brown eyes that would be unfair, and it could be justified.
“But, in this case, he was simply saying. ‘I would recognise his eyes’. so to obscure them is extraordinary.”
Police insist the move was made on the instructions of the procurator-fiscal service, but the COPFS employee involved has since claimed to have no recollection of the conversation and neither police nor COPFS have any record of the events.
In August, the watchdog Police Investigations and Review Commissioner demanded an auditable record of the agreement but DCI Hogg said the communication had been verbal and there was no record of the conversation.
The Crown Office confirmed this in November, when Fiona Shand of the COPFS information unit wrote: “The member of staff the police advise they spoke to does not have any recollection or notes of the conversation, however the staff member accepts that it may have taken place.”
This too is extraordinary, according to both the lawyer and Mr Tracey himself. Mr Collins said: “If someone has given a specific instruction to pixelate the photos, I would expect that to be recorded by the police.”
A police spokesman refused to comment on the case.for Police Scotland said it would be inappropriate to comment as other aspects of Mr Tracey’s complaint were still currently under consideration.