Monday Morning Thoughts: Newspapers All Over Country Have Stopped Running Mugshots, Not the Enterprise

The story featured prominently on page one of the newspaper: “Bail increase sought for South Davis sex-assault suspect.”  In addition to the story, a mugshot of the suspect.

The man is accused of attempting to rape a woman on a South Davis bike path last month—an alarming crime to be sure.  And there is—at least on the surface—solid evidence in the form of a fingerprint.  But the Davis Enterprise is behind the times here, as most papers across the country have stopped running mugshots.

The Tampa Bay Times announced in June that they will no longer publish mugshot galleries of the recently arrested, amid concerns they “disproportionately show black and brown faces.”  The paper said it will still publish mug shots relevant to particular stories, but not in its gallery format.

“The galleries lack context and further negative stereotypes,” Tampa Bay Times executive editor Mark Katches said in a statement.  “We think the data is an important resource that our newsroom will continue to analyze and watch carefully, but the galleries alone serve little journalistic purpose.”

In July, the Sacramento Bee went further, announcing “it will limit the publication of police booking photos, surveillance photos and videos of alleged crimes, and composite sketches of suspects provided by law enforcement agencies.”

The paper wrote: “Publishing these photographs and videos disproportionately harms people of color and those with mental illness, while also perpetuating stereotypes about who commits crime in our community.”

”The Bee has taken several recent steps to work against long-standing stereotypes. We have largely banned the use of the word ‘looting’ – a term rooted in racism – and have sought to elevate the voices of emerging writers from communities we have long underserved through our Community Voices project,” said Bee President and Editor Lauren Gustus. “And building trust takes time. Our intention with this policy change is to take another step forward.”

Most mainstream media outlets have published police booking photos, known as “mugshots,” for decades.  The photos are generally provided by law enforcement when they arrest or charge suspects.

But, as the Bee noted, “Their publication can have a permanent damaging effect on individuals and communities.”

The problem of course is that these represent arrests and suspicion.  The individual may be released.  They may have their charges dropped.  They may be acquitted.  They may plead to lesser charges.

“Yet the mugshot of that person in police custody remains,” the Bee wrote.

This is part of a growing trend.  In July as well, “The San Francisco Police Department said it would no longer release mug shots because they reinforce racial biases, joining a growing movement by newspapers and broadcasters to curtail their use.”

Chief William Scott announced in July that his department will no longer even release mug shots, and “there was an immediate public safety reason to do so.

“This policy emerges from compelling research suggesting that the widespread publication of police booking photos in the news and on social media creates an illusory correlation for viewers that fosters racial bias and vastly overstates the propensity of Black and brown men to engage in criminal behavior,” Chief Scott said in a statement.

Back in February, even before the racial consciousness triggered by the death of George Floyd, the Marshall Project reported, “Newsrooms Rethink a Crime Reporting Staple: The Mugshot.”

The Marshall Project cited the “lasting impact of putting these photos on the internet, where they live forever, (and) media outlets are increasingly doing away with the galleries of people on the worst days of their lives.”

“Mugshot slideshows whose primary purpose is to generate page views will no longer appear on our websites,” Mark Lorando, a managing editor at the Houston Chronicle, explained in an email to the Marshall Project. “We’re better than that.”

“Thank you, @HoustonChron for doing the right thing,” tweeted Jason Spencer, spokesman for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. “I’m hopeful that other media outlets and law enforcement agencies will follow your lead and rethink the practice of publicly shaming arrested people who haven’t been convicted of a crime.”

The Marshall Project noted, “Some news organizations—including The Marshall Project—avoid mugshots altogether. The New Haven Independent, a nonprofit news site in Connecticut, doesn’t typically use images or even names of people who’ve been arrested.”

Johnny Perez, a formerly incarcerated New Yorker who is currently director of U.S. prison programs for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, told the Marshall Project, “It reaffirms existing biased and creates biases where none exist.  People of color are already more likely to be found guilty than their white counterparts.

“It creates this situation where you’re criminalizing folks before they’re convicted of any crime,” he said, noting that the existence of mugshots on the internet, where they’re easily searchable, can make it hard for people to get jobs.

That’s the key here—arrest doesn’t equate to having committed a crime.  But the photos are often up permanently and make it hard for people whether or not they have committed the crime to escape their past.  They play into stereotypes.  And for the most part they serve a limited purpose.

When they do serve a public safety purpose, editors and journalists can decide on a case by case basis whether to publish the photos.

In the meantime, it is time for the local paper to catch up to the times with the rest of the country—especially in a progressive community like Davis.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

 

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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30 Comments

  1. Keith Olsen

    We have largely banned the use of the word ‘looting’

    From the Free Dictionary:  1. To take goods from (a place) by force or without right, especially in time of war or lawlessness; plunder

    Not a racist term at all, in the recent riots there were looters of all races.  And “looting” was exactly what was taking place even though there are some activists who are now trying to put forward a narrative that looting is justified.

    In fact, with the now active fires there’s been some looting taking place as people are forced to evacuate their homes.  So it’s not always associated with race or rioting.

    1. Alan Miller

      Changing the meaning of words and banning words.  Remind you of a particular book about a particular year, that warned us about language manipulation as a form of oppression?

      Hmmm . . . !!! ?

      1. Alan Miller

        Vanguard “off-topic” = “I don’t like your stance on this issue and the fact you are making good points that weaken my stance”.  When has something, in this case use of the word ‘looting’, that actually was in the article, considered ‘off topic’ when the V agrees with it?  You can’t just drop some major major controversial issue in an article, then say it’s not the main topic, and declare talking about it ‘off topic’.   Foul!

    2. Tia Will

      Keith

      “Looting” is of course a racially neutral term. Until it is used so as to advance racial stereotypes. I remember pictures from Katrina in which stranded individuals who happened to be white were wading through high water carrying presumably salvaged goods under a heading “victims carrying supplies” while similarly stranded black individuals carrying goods were labeled “looters”. Intentional or not, such portrayals and labeling can have deleterious effects on those so portrayed.

    3. Alan Miller

      In fact, with the now active fires there’s been some looting taking place as people are forced to evacuate their homes.  So it’s not always associated with race or rioting.

      Very true.  A neighbor has a cabin the in western foothills.  Most people had left due to nearby fires, but not a total evacuation.  He got a call from a neighbor about someone suspicious in the cabin, and went out there and confronted two (white, if it matters) meth-heads.  They started to run, and he shot his firearm into the air – they changed their minds and stayed until Sheriff arrived.  He said it was the first time he’d ever discharged his firearm outside of target practice.

      1. Tia Will

        Alan

        So it’s not always associated with race or rioting.”

        Not always, does not address whether or not there is a disproportionate effect on one group over another. This would seem to depend upon the attitudes and perspectives of publishers. There is a long history in this country of disproportionately portraying blacks as violent criminals while whites are frequently given a pass for the same behaviors dating back to but perhaps most notoriously as in Birth of a Nation.

  2. Alan Miller

    I’m all for banning mugshots for the reason that they only “represent arrests and suspicion”, and the problem with the proliferation on the internet.  A friend was arrested years ago and got stuck in the Sacramento downtown jail.  He was a tie-wearing professional, and did do something stupid – but it was totally spontaneous and based on an unexpected, adrenaline-fueled provocation that he had totally misread.  I wrote a character “I’d let this guy watch my kids” letter for the court, because I absolutely would have.

    He possibly got stuck in the system — and that Sacramento jail for weeks — because he was black.  They posted this horrible photo of him in the paper along with allegations, later dropped — I felt so bad for this man that I had sat in business meetings with.  When he finally got before a judge, the guy looked at his case and his life and said, “What are you doing in here?” and set him free.

    However, post photos upon conviction!

  3. Bill Marshall

    David… the same can be said of names and Cities of residence… in the 50’s, my Dad was harassed by creditors, PD, etc. (intense for a year, lesser for two more) because he had the same name, same City of residence, as a guy who was a chronic thief.  Dad had problems getting a home loan to buy the house I grew up in.

    So, if no pics (which would have helped Dad, as he could have clipped it out to show he was not the guy), then I suggest no names, ages, cities of residence… many names are ‘logical’ identifiers as to race…

    And, you have a dilemma… demanding quick access to PD webcam footage… ‘mugshots’ of all involved, as it were…

    Methinks you are making a mountain out of a molehill… or, an issue that “is not ready for prime time”, unless one thinks it thru… the FL paper dispensing with ‘galleries’ makes sense.  But with photos, sketches, the public can assist with identifying/finding the location of a suspect ‘at-large’… also, in the sexual assault arena, a pic could bring forward other witnesses either to convict or exonerate a ‘suspect’.

    Case-by-case, using reasonable judgement, seems to be the way to go… and, if a pic turns out to be an innocent person, or uncharged, or whatever, the publisher should could (and should) revise their links to link to the “correction/update”…

    Or were you just feeling a need to take a potshot at the Emptyprize?

    1. Alan Miller

      And, you have a dilemma… demanding quick access to PD webcam footage… ‘mugshots’ of all involved, as it were…

      Good point . . .

      But with photos, sketches, the public can assist with identifying/finding the location of a suspect ‘at-large’… also, in the sexual assault arena, a pic could bring forward other witnesses either to convict or exonerate a ‘suspect’.

      Also good point . . .

      Hmm . . . seems we have a complex issue here.

    2. David Greenwald

      I felt the need to raise an issue that a lot of other papers had addressed already. I still lack the understanding of the community benefit from posting the mugshots. It seems more like shaming to me and given the number of cases that end up being dismissed, dropped, and acquitted, it seems like you end up ringing a bell that cannot be unrung and in some notable cases, there have been huge personal costs to people who turned out to be innocent.

  4. Bill Marshall

    Still looking for whether names, city of residence, age, are still “fair game”, in your opinion (and, ‘practice’), David…

    Those, via internet, could probably “dox” almost everyone… even generate pictures… ‘mug shots’…

    1. David Greenwald

      We have that conversation as a board and with our partners a lot.  At this point, names, city, age – all that is still reportable.  Doxing someone requires an additional step to be taken.  I don’t know if it will stay that way.  But that’s where we are now.

      1. Bill Marshall

        Doxing someone requires an additional step to be taken.

        Yes, and anyone can do it, via internet if they have name, city of residence, and age… that’s real.

        To check, just do it on yourself, or members of your family…

          1. David Greenwald

            I’m okay with it at the moment but still revisiting the issue from time to time. There are key issues specific to photos. There are also key issues that arise if you remove names.

        1. Bill Marshall

          And what would be the key issues about not revealing names?  What is the ‘public benefit’ of revealing names?  You say there is no public benefit of ‘publishing’ pics… you have acknowledged that with names, age, city of residence, you can very often get to pics.  Just not understanding the diff… maybe takes a non-engineer to understand… assist me, please…

          1. David Greenwald

            The key issue would be tracking names over time and keeping track of cases overall.

            In terms of the photos, I don’t see an actual need for them unless there is a real public safety issue.

  5. Alan Miller

    I have wondered if there will come a day when you call the police, and instead of them asking, “did the person appear to be white, black, Hispanic, Asian?”, you say, “the man appeared to be Inuit (for example)”, and the dispatcher says, “I’m sorry sir, we can no longer use racial or ethnic appearance as a description — could you be more detailed in your description without using racial, ethnic or gendered language?”

    [No, I haven’t googled it, but why do I have the feeling I’m going to find out this has already occurred in some cities, and/or there is a movement afoot for this to happen nationwide?]

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