Commentary

NJ Police Create Facebook Perp Walk

facebook-police dept profiles

Here's another one for the "bound to happen eventually" file: It seems police in the town of Evesham, N.J., have begun posting mug shots on the police department's Facebook profile, in a move that is basically designed to publicly shame miscreants ranging from drunk drivers to car thieves and worse. Equally predictable is the wave of criticism this has elicited. Some of these are good points, but I think there is a way to post photos without hurting anyone unjustly.

First of all, lawbreakers forfeit some (though not all) of their privacy in breaking the law. While the right to privacy still protects important information like their social security numbers and health histories, it does not cover their basic identity -- meaning their name, address, and likeness. Police stations and courts are public places, so the very act of being arrested and hauled in front of a judge reveals their identity to anyone who cares to inquire. Furthermore, public shaming of transgressors is an established practice -- many local newspapers already feature a "Police Blotter." If it happens that online social media is a more effective medium for shaming the transgressor by reaching a larger public audience, well, all the better, right?

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The only problem I can see with this approach is the potential for posting a mug shot of someone who was wrongly arrested -- but frankly that is a pretty big problem. It's easy enough to figure out whether someone has been driving under the influence, but what about cases where a person is falsely accused of a serious crime to tarnish their reputation? And of course police also make honest mistakes (e.g., Buffalo police arresting the wrong suspect in the shooting which left four people dead last week).

In light of these facts, it seems inappropriate to indiscriminately post arrest photos -- as the Evesham police appear to be doing -- as it goes against the spirit of the rule that suspects should be considered "innocent until proven guilty." A safer approach might be to post mug shots once the suspect has confessed or been convicted of the crime, or at least waiting until they have been charged.

So what about law enforcement posting "wanted" photos of suspects on social media sites? This strikes me as a qualitatively different from what the Evesham police are doing. A fugitive at large could inflict further harm on the public, and in my view this outweighs any concern over damage to his or her reputation if he/she should happen to be innocent. By contrast, a mug shot depicts someone who is already in custody, meaning there is no immediate utility in posting it for all to see.

8 comments about "NJ Police Create Facebook Perp Walk".
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  1. Chris Kieff from 1 Good Reason, August 18, 2010 at 11:54 a.m.

    When I looked at the Evesham police site they had both Wanted type photos and mugshots. So they appear to be doing exactly what you are suggesting.
    Also they are careful to state as always that a person was arrested for xxxx. Which is simply reporting what happened as fact. Since they are public servants I think the benefit far outweighs the damage that may be caused by a false arrest.
    A bigger question is whether anyone tags the photos, and if the police department would remove tags. Especially if they are wrongly tagged. I see the potential for abuse, misuse and mischief to be high. But even given that, I think that the real benefit of public shame on lawbreakers far outweighs the potential damage. Public shame is a very strong force and should be used for good.

  2. L john Yarusi from Olive LLC, August 18, 2010 at 3:34 p.m.

    I F'n Love This Idea -

    When I lived out West in Idaho, near the Montana boarder city of Missoula... I use to love getting my hands on the local city paper - as they use to publish photos of people they arrested for drunk driving - and in most cases... They were still drunk... I'm sure you can conjure up a visual of what those mug shots looked like... Best way to describe it SADLARIOUS!

    Funny side note - the offender, if found guilty... Had to pay for the news paper ad that showed their drunk mugs...

    Maybe social shame isn't a bad concept... LOL

    @johnnyboyolive

  3. Ronald Stack from Zavee LLC, August 18, 2010 at 3:41 p.m.

    The Evesham page is careful to say the the accused are presumed innocent, etc., just like newspapers do. However, I don't think newspaper mugshots are indexed on Google the way FB posts are. Google "Amanda Guarneri" - like a potential school or employer is likely to do - and the Evesham post and mug shot are right at the top.

    I realize that if the local paper wrote a story about this arrest and put it online the outcome would be the same, but at least someone would have made the editorial decision that the story was worth publishing - something that is clearly not the job of the Evesham police.

  4. Lyndsey Patterson from Concur Technologies, Inc., August 18, 2010 at 3:50 p.m.

    Chris - I agree that shame is a great tool and we should use it. But I'm not there yet...

    The Issues I see:
    Is that girl pictured above a minor? It says she was brought in for shoplifting at Walmart... The internet creates a permanent record. In one extreme scenario you could imagine that the girl above IS a minor who was arrested for shoplifting something like, I don't know, hair ties and sunglasses. Is this the best way to punish her? A) The internet creates a permanent record - what if this kid doesn't get into college 4 years from now because some admissions board finds her Walmart shoplifting mug shot from when she was 14 on FB? That would be a waste.
    B) I bet all of this girls friends and frenemies have already found the conveniently digital image and are working away in PhotoShop as we speak. Is that cruel and unusual?

    I don't know, I think this is the right track, but there have to be some guidelines around minors.

  5. Diane Dzurochak from NONE, August 18, 2010 at 4:02 p.m.

    My mother used social shame to enstill good public behavior by my brother and I, so I know it works wonderfully, but isn't this a basic privacy infringement regardless of whether they are innocent or not? The police AREN'T the media, who has used freedom of speech rights to get access to shots like this for their distribution. I don't like where all this 'interactive' social media is going -- becoming far too invasive in the name of being 'connected'.

  6. Steven Graff from Bloofusion Inc., August 18, 2010 at 4:53 p.m.

    And where will the pictures of the individuals who have been cleared of any wrong doing be published and what can be done to ensure this clearing of the reputation is as well, or better, known?

    What about pictures of the officers who made the erroneous arrest, will these be published with the associated information? Along these same lines, shouldn't officers that have been sanctioned by the court or their police departments be subjected to the same public sharing of names, photographs and actions? Wouldn't it be equally appropriate to have a social media site featuring pictures of police, public officials and politicians that have been put on probation or found in breach of professional ethics?

    A couple of things that people seem to be glossing over:
    Police and private security are not infallible
    Being arrested for a crime is not the same as being guilty
    Being arrested is not a crime
    The law states we are innocent until proven guilty, however as every poster pointed out there is public shame associated with being arrested
    Neither the police or press are required to provide retractions

    There are financial costs to being falsely accused and having one's reputation tainted with this sort of "public shaming" that go far beyond defending oneself and they may be incurred over the remainder of the individual's life. Loss of employment or salary potential, reduction of credit rating or access to credit are just two, yet the state and press are not required to compensate these individuals for any of these losses if they are shown to be innocent.

    In the Montana example where guilty parties are required to pay for the newspaper ads, shouldn't the reverse be appropriate where if not found guilty the city/state be required to pay not only for the original ad, but an additional ad clearing the individual's reputation and acknowledging the department/officer made the arrest in error?

    There is a growing movement in the USA to effectively make any transgressor of a law or social norm a de-facto criminal for life, despite having been cleared in court or completing the requirements of his or her sentence. Unless they happen to be a preacher, politician or cop.

  7. John Capone from Whalebone, August 18, 2010 at 5:33 p.m.

    Newsday has been posting mugshots of local arrests online for ages. If I could get through their pay wall I'd still get a good chuckle out the DUI mugs from the weekend every Monday morning.

    As for using social shame: why don't we just cut to the chase and put them in stockades? Oh yeah, nobody could "like" that.

  8. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, August 18, 2010 at 7 p.m.

    Another caveat, as more hate fills the aisles including some turn on a hare's breath of erroneous, false and downright wrong and undocumented fact checked information, arrests can be made dependent upon that information as well as those idealogies fomenting in some police stations. Could these actions eventually wind up in the Supreme Court ? Does one sue the local government - which in turn screws the local citizens with higher taxes to pay the injured party - or does one sue those responsible for the misinformation if they can be found and if they have anything to be had? The misinformation about misinformation yet abounds in more complications than solutions. Something to chew on before you spit it out.

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