Police lineups are a hoot!

line up

I have had quite a number of different jobs in my life, with one of the more interesting ones being in police lineups in Hong Kong. A year ago I was fresh out of university in Hong Kong, out of a job, and had signed up with a local talent agency to see if it could bring in som extra cash.

A police lineup is a way to make sure that the police has got the right guy when the suspect has not confessed to the crime. Typically 10 people are lined up behind a one way mirror in front of one or more witnesses. Only one out of the ten people in the lineup is a suspect with the other nine being completely random people who have nothing whatsoever to do with the crime. If the witness can pick out the one who did it from that line of people it is considered as a positive ID, i.e. it gives the court a pretty good indication that they have the right guy. Let me also just mention that the legal system of Hong Kong is completely separate from the rest of China. Hong Kong law has remained largely unchanged since the territory was a British colony and is therefore very similar to the legal system of the United Kingdom. But enough about that.

With me always being a good boy, I was of course one of the nine random guys who were there to confuse the witness. Fun! Ideally, the nine others should be physically similar to the suspect both in age, hair colour, build, height etc. However, with the number of caucasian men with nothing better to do on a weekday afternoon in Hong Kong being pretty limited, the Hong Kong Police Force can not really afford be picky. As long as gender and ethnicity match, it is all more or less good. This is however not as bad as it sounds, since many Chinese people think all white people look the same. Just like someone who has only seen white people all his life will have a hard time telling Chinese people apart.

I did this twice. Both times I was asked to meet at an MTR (metro) station in central Hong Kong with the other nine random whiteys before being taken to the police station where we would wait in a room labeled “Actors”. An excellent gesture since the majority of the specimen were aspiring actors. (Let me just point out that we did not sign any non-disclosure agreement nor were we asked not to talk about what we heard and saw so at worst I am getting a bit of bad karma here).

The first time was a bit sad really. The nine of us walked in and found this 20-something guy who looked as if he were on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And his lawyer. The sweat rings under his arms were visible from space and the guy was literally trembling. We had all been asked to come wearing casual clothes but sadly, the suspect had obviously not gotten this message and looked way too overdressed compared to us. His lawyer decided that he wanted him to trade shirt with one of us. This made us all look down in an instant, keeping the sweaty armpits in mind, praying not to be picked. The facial expression of the lucky guy who did get picked was priceless, but we of course all pretended as if we took no notice of that. I mean we are not mean people. The suspect’s hairdo was, eh, loud so in order to make the whole thing a bit more fair they decided to put shower caps on us to hide the hair. Then, enter witness #1.

Because of the mirror we could not see what went on on the other side but instead it gave us an excellent view of the shower-capped line and more importantly the suspect. He was now standing with his arms folded on his back as if (mentally?) handcuffed looking straight down in an obvious attempt to show as little of his guilt-ridden face as possible. The rest of us looked pretty relaxed, not exactly helping the man in question. I mean, had a random person walked into the room and been asked to pick out the one who looked the most guilty I am pretty sure that 99% would have chosen our guy. Because of the mirror we could not see what went on in the witness room, but to my great surprise we could hear everything. And as if for our benefit the first witness was not a local meaning that everything being said was in English (instead of Cantonese) making it easy for us to follow. This nervous fella had smashed a beer bottle on someone’s head in a bar in Hollywood Road and then made a run for it. Unfortunately for him, the long arm of the law had obviously caught up with him and because he had denied doing it he was now trembling in this room in Sheung Wan Police Station with us. But to no avail. All witnesses picked him out without hesitation.

The second time a couple of weeks later was a bit more, uh how should I put it, Winona Ryder kinda stupid. Again, the same procedure with us waiting in the room labeled “Actors” was repeated, and when the wait was up we walked into the room with the mirror. This time a 40-something guy and his lawyer were already there, and this one looked a lot more composed than the wreck who had met us the previous time. To my great joy, we got to dress up this time too. The person had apparently worn black glasses when committing his crime so we were therefore given a pair of black plastic specs. You know, the very cheap kind that you use for costume parties. The only thing missing was the fake nose. Again we lined up and were ready for witness number one while hoping that also this time one of the witnesses would be non-Chinese giving us the audio track in English. And again we were in luck.

This guy had bought several very expensive suits in a top Italian designer store in Hong Kong, but decided to nick a couple of silk ties at the same time. Slik ties costing only a small fraction of what he had already spent there. You know, just for sports. As the investigator read up the synopsis of the deed the suspect looked more and more embarrassed, almost to the point of blushing. All of us kept sneaking peeks at him in the mirror. And I was probably not the only one thinking: How stupid are you? Did he not know the entire store was covered with surveillance cameras that caught him doing it? To top it off he had even left his business card with his contact details in the bowl on the counter next to the till to be put on their mailing list. If there ever were a show called “Hong Kong’s Dumbest Criminals” I am sure he would have got his 15 minutes of fame. He probably did not make it onto their mailing list though.

Ok, this has been a display of my more shallow side, having a ball with other people’s misfortune. I promise to try to score more karma points in my next post.


Innocently Yours,


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