What is a Rogues Gallery?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A rogues gallery is a collection of images a law enforcement agency retains to use in identifications. When a crime occurs, representatives of the agency can ask witnesses to look at the images to see if they recognize anybody. Identifying someone in a photograph is not as powerful as an identification in a lineup, but it can be a good start for investigators. This concept appears to date to the mid-1800s and the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the United States.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

Sources for images in a rogues gallery can vary. Many agencies use booking photos from their own records and may include images from other law enforcement agencies as well. Historically, these were kept in large books and sorted by type, allowing officers to quickly pull out a book of likely candidates on the basis of a description given by the suspect. Many agencies now digitize their records and can provide people with a digital photo lineup, with access to photographs uploaded by other agencies.

When someone reports a crime, police will take a description of the perpetrator and may ask the victim to review the rogues gallery to see if anyone looks familiar. This can allow police to determine if a repeat offender committed the crime and may also help people like sketch artists. Even if the victim cannot identify a specific person, the pictures may help the victim come up with a more accurate description so the police can circulate a good likeness in the hopes of identifying the criminal as early as possible.

In court, a victim identification based on a rogues gallery is not as strong as a lineup, and police will usually also ask people to attend a lineup once they apprehend the suspect. Defendants may challenge photo identifications on the grounds that the victim may have been manipulated by police officers or could be looking at old or inaccurate photographs.

Some police departments maintain a wall of their most notable cases, and this can include images from the rogues gallery, depicting criminals the department has successfully managed to convict. The department may also maintain an informal wall of frequent offenders so officers will be able to recognize them easily when they see them engaging in suspicious activity. For a department covering a large area, this can be useful for new officers or people changing their beats who might not be familiar with the usual suspects in their new area of operations.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Is this anything like the ten most wanted thing that the FBI does? I know that they have pictures of them on their website and that show America’s Most Wanted seems to catch a lot of criminals so it cannot be a totally bad idea. It may be a bit low tech but sometimes the best answer to a problem is the simplest. Anything that helps make their job easier is a good thing.


@mathgeek75- My brother was questioned by the police in exactly that kind of thing. They told him that someone had picked out a picture that looked just like him in one of these galleries. Thank goodness he had an explanation for where he had been at the time of the crime. It seems like in this day and age they would have some better technology than this to help catch people. Even with digital pictures this all seems very low tech.


I have an uncle that is a police officer and he actually hates using these galleries. He feels that the pictures influence the way that people remember things. He likes to cite one case where a woman was robbed and she started describing the man. She was shown some pictures and picked out a couple of men that she felt looked like the man that robbed her. They caught the man when he tried to rob someone else and he looked totally different than the pictures. When the woman was shown a picture of the actual thief she recognized him immediately and could not explain how she had gotten it so wrong.

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