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State your case: Should agencies stop distributing mug shots?

San Francisco PD recently announced it would limit the distribution of booking photographs over concerns they reinforce negative stereotypes


San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott recently announced the agency would limit the distribution of booking photographs of people arrested.

AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File

This “State your case” looks at whether agencies should limit or stop the release of booking photos.

Our debaters: Jim Dudley, a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau, and Chief Joel Shults, EdD, who retired as chief of police in Colorado.

The ground rules: As in an actual debate, the pro and con sides are assigned randomly as an exercise in critical thinking and analyzing problems from different perspectives.

The issue: San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott recently announced the agency would limit the distribution of booking photographs of people arrested as they can show racial bias and reinforce negative stereotypes. Several media outlets have chosen to end this practice already.

In a July 6 interview with PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler, Chief Scott provided some background as to how the decision came about:

“Our academic partners shared the decades of work on bias, and how releasing booking photos impacts people’s thinking. Because these booking photos are broadcast over mass media, they affect how people formulate beliefs about certain groups of people based on what they see. If you see a lot of images of African-American men posted on social media or news websites associated with crime, that can have an impact on whether people, including police officers, create stereotypes. The science tells us that stereotypes are a big part of bias.”

Watch Chief Scott discuss the policy change below and then check out our columnist’s viewpoints.

Jim Dudley: Arrests are made with probable cause. That is self-explanatory but it should be enough to chronicle an adult arrested for a crime.

As someone who served for 32 years in the San Francisco Police Department, I have to say prohibiting public mug shots is yet another flawed policy aimed at a social stigma, and not at a crime-fighting tool.

First and foremost, booking photos give notice to law enforcement in the region of what a recently captured offender looks like. Regardless of race or gender, it may fit the description of an otherwise unknown suspect in a crime an investigator chronicled or investigated.

Mug shots are valuable tools to inform the public of a probable offender who has been arrested. The mug shot release may stimulate someone’s memory to recall the individual as a perpetrator of another crime or at least serve as a lead to another crime.

Victims are often known to take a path of least resistance and not report a crime for several reasons, including the belief that the individual may never be caught. Seeing the offender in custody may give courage to victims to report past crimes. For chronic offenders, it removes the anonymity that otherwise allows them to repeatedly commit crimes.

Chances are these days that an offender may not remain in custody for long, and will be out free on their own recognizance or “zero bail.” Chronic offenders will often continue to commit crimes while awaiting adjudication. The mug shot may cause a potential new victim to give pause at their familiarity and prevent a new crime.

Joel Shults: My initial reaction to the San Francisco story was an eye roll for another empty, meaningless, politically correct, feel-good public relations tactic. But then I asked myself why police departments push out mug shots to the media in the first place. A quick look at the history of these things takes us back to the early days of criminology when the idea of body types, face shapes and other physical characteristics were believed to be indicators of a person’s criminality.

Although couched in science with caliper measures and fingerprint-like classification systems, it doesn’t take a leap of logic to see that judging a person’s criminality by their looks is the kind of stereotyping less than a half step away from outright racism. So, the origin of mugshots is a little shady to begin with.

Now enter the age of the internet, where one moment can be memorialized and morphed into present-day judgments, and the scene gets murkier. Just like shuffling a shackled, stripe-suited defendant in for trial can make a deep psychological impression on a jury of guilt, a mug shot for very legitimate purposes can stain a person’s presumption of innocence to infinity in the digital world. There’s big money in companies who promise to remove mug shots from the web. The engineering school graduate applying for a sensitive government contractor position doesn’t want his or her 19-year-old 2 a.m. police photo for a lawn ornament theft to pop up and linger in the mind of a potential employer.

Public trials and processes are an important part of our rights but always balanced with the presumption of innocence. Routine public release of mugshots deserves to be re-evaluated.

Jim Dudley: The release of mug shots should be a continued practice. The law agency should place them in crime alerts to stations and through their websites and social media. The press, as the Fourth Estate, has the discretion already to choose whether to release the photos as well.

For those wrongfully accused, the agency who publicly released the initial mug shot should issue a formal retraction. However, the mere fact that the District Attorney may choose not to prosecute is not reason alone for the retraction. Several years ago, our chief, assistant chief and others were indicted by a nefarious process including malicious prosecution and inaccuracies fed to a Grand Jury. A judge ultimately ruled for a “Factual Innocence” finding that served to call for media retractions. Until then, the command staff and agency were vilified, and the mug shots were often used to accompany the dozens of news articles published over several weeks.

Is the next step going to be no more videos or still photographs showing people committing or fleeing crime? I suspect it is next on the list for the same reasons. Currently, arrest logs are public record. Will they be concealed from the public as well? Police agencies may choose only to release photos of suspects in continuing violent cases where the suspects are outstanding, yet I believe popular media may choose to continue to use mug shots taken of officers accused of a crime.

Probable cause is necessary to effect an arrest. That threshold should be the benchmark for releasing mug shots as well.

Joel Shults: Jim, I agree there are many public safety and public interest motives for routinely releasing mug shots. But it is one of many things that have always been done and for many instances, we don’t know why we started, why we continued or took time to evaluate the continuance of the policy.

The media will challenge this tightening and may prevail, but in the light of the storm calling for police reforms in many areas, this is an effort that is worthy of experiment and a showing of good faith examination of the way law enforcement works.

NEXT: Read more “State your case” debates here.

About the authors

James Dudley is a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau. He has served as the DC of Special Operations and Liaison to the Department of Emergency Management where he served as Event and Incident Commander for a variety of incidents, operations and emergencies. He has a Master’s degree in Criminology and Social Ecology from the University of California at Irvine. He is currently a member of the Criminal Justice faculty at San Francisco State University, consults on organizational assessments for LE agencies and co-hosts the Policing Matters podcast for Police1.

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy. He retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor’s in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on several advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.