Taken together, online ‘mugshot mills’ and law-enforcement ‘awareness campaigns’ can ruin lives and erode trust between the police and the community.
Imagine Googling yourself and discovering that a police mugshot is the first image that appears. Now, imagine further that the mugshot is from a case in which you were wrongfully charged and the charges were later dropped.
Unfortunately, all too many Americans have had an experience like this in recent years. Law-enforcement agencies across the country have been employing a new tactic to catch alleged criminals: tweeting their mugshot. And in so doing, they’ve bypassed the presumption of innocence, victimized innocent citizens, and ultimately made our communities less safe.
“Wanted Wednesdays” and “Turn Yourself in Thursdays” are relatively new social-media gimmicks used by police departments with good intentions: The idea is that an active citizenry can help protect the community by being on guard against potential threats. The practice has historical precedent, as well: In bygone years, posting mugshots in post offices was a typical way of alerting a town or county to a potential threat.
Certainly, the public can still benefit today from police departments’ putting out the mugshot of a suspect wanted for a violent crime. But the modern-day equivalent of the post-office bulletin board is the Internet, which raises a host of ethical questions around the practice of releasing mugshots that just didn’t exist before.
A recent Los Angeles Times article reported that police departments differ significantly in their use of social-media mugshots. Sergeant Shane Carringer, the Anaheim Police Department’s public-information officer, said his department uses online mugshots “as a detecting tool,” but admitted that the results have been “mixed.” He claimed that Anaheim takes down mugshots once a suspect has been captured, but this doesn’t seem to always be the case: The Times reports that the Anaheim PD, as well as police departments in Baltimore, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, don’t have a systematic way of taking down mugshots once a suspect is no longer wanted.
This has led to some tragic results. Baltimore has pushed a “Public Enemy Number One” designation on their social-media accounts, and in 2017 applied the designation to Antonio Wright, who was alleged to have firebombed two teenagers. Wright turned himself in but maintained his innocence. Fifteen months later, he was acquitted of all charges and released. He was found shot in the head that same year, and while there’s no evidence that his murder was related to his former status as a wanted man, the label dogged him even in death: The stories that covered his passing all mentioned him as “Former Public Enemy” or “Former Public Enemy No.1.”
What’s more startling is that even if a police department doesn’t tweet someone’s identity, their mugshot can still appear on a Google Search.
Blake Mathesie, then a bartender, was arrested for felony battery after breaking up a fight at the bar where he worked. He was acquitted, but that fact made little difference to search engines. Searching on Google for “Blake Mathesie” yielded the mugshot of his arrest, severely limiting his future employment opportunities. As Mathesie told a local news outlet, “when you have a job-applicant pool and one has a mugshot, why even give them the time of day when you got 99 others?” Mathesie, who eventually became a law student, successfully lobbied for a Florida law that allows individuals to have their mugshots removed from online-search results. This kind of law was necessary because, for some companies, publishing mugshots online is big business.
Nearly 70 million Americans have a criminal history, and their brushes with the law too often haunt them long after they’ve paid their debts to society. As I detailed in a previous piece, just dealing with the criminal-justice system can be enough to sink someone’s career. This is, at least in part, because some companies collect and post mugshots online, and then charge to remove the pictures from their databases. It’s essentially an extortion racket — and a highly effective one at that.
Eighteen states have passed laws to combat sites that engage in these predatory practices, but the laws are not easy to enforce. The problem is surely exacerbated by the fact that law-enforcement agencies are increasingly engaging in similar behavior. Taken together, mugshot mills and police departments’ online “awareness campaigns” can ruin people’s lives and erode trust between the police and the community.
We’ve all heard some variant of the phrase “the Internet is forever.” It’s one of those clichés that became a cliché because it’s true: What gets put online doesn’t get taken down easily. Mugshot mills use that fact to their financial advantage, and conservatives and liberals should join together to crack down on their business model. But while enforcing laws against mugshot extortion is hard, keeping criminal investigations out of the public eye shouldn’t be. The truly low-hanging fruit is police departments’ posting of mugshots online, and criminal-justice reformers on both sides of the aisle should grab it.