Excellent commentary by freelance writer and producer Charles Davis. One of the things I hate most about our local "liberal" or "alternative" media is that it features a "mugshot of the week" contest, in which it seeks to inflict maximum humiliation on the subjects, amplifying, of all things, one of Sheriff Joe Arpaio's own tools of abuse. Having been targets of his themselves, you'd think the editors would show a bit more empathy. They even donated a big chunk of change they got from suing him to ASU to improve coverage of Latino issues in the field of journalism....
Lots of people thought he was funny.
I know this guy, personally - and it wasn't funny.
Cancer is what ate his face.
Wednesday, 04 February 2015 10:20
By Charles Davis, Truthout | News Analysis
image can tell a story, but like any tale it could very well be full of
lies. Who is taking a photo - when they have taken it and why, what
they have decided to include and chosen to leave out - invariably
affects what we, the viewer, see. The lighting, positioning and camera
angle can sway whether the picture evokes empathy or anger, lust or
revulsion. The photograph is an unreliable narrator, then, telling us
part of a story but giving us nothing close to the full picture.
mugshot, the picture taken after an arrest, is a photo designed to tell
the state's side of a story. The subject of the photo, taken at one of
the lowest points in their life, has no voice, but the language of the
form - the unflattering bright light, the drab background, the name and
prisoner ID at the bottom - tells us we are looking at a "criminal."
the internet, that "we" has expanded to the far reaches of the globe.
Today, police in the United States can upload a photo of their latest
catch to Facebook and see it in a foreign tabloid by the end of the day.
Before the subject can mount a defense, a 1,000-word photo pronouncing
their guilt may have already gone viral. Stacking the deck in favor of
the already advantaged police, the photos discourage empathy in favor of
judgment: of the accused person's appearance and their overall worth as
a human being. Depicted only as a transgressor, not as a mother or
father or someone's son or daughter, the subjects of mugshots become
fair game for abuse. We can mock their looks and class and perceived
intelligence without feeling guilty; this humiliation becomes just
another manifestation of punishment (often before a conviction has even
The press partakes readily in this ritual
debasement, the most respectable of media outlets eagerly distributing
the state's unflattering photos, of people who have yet to be convicted
of anything, on the front page and on the evening news and on dedicated
websites that feature nothing but mugshots, sortable according to the
physical features of the once-human body that is now behind bars, with a
line at the end or in small print thrown in, almost as an afterthought,
that the person we see is "innocent until proven guilty," though the
implication of guilt hangs heavy over every photo: Come on, just look at
Almost everyone looks like a criminal because every
arrested person we know who has been caught has posed for the same
photo. And it's the looks of the person, not necessarily the severity of
their alleged crime, which often makes a mugshot go around the globe.
arrested for meth possession while wearing 'I Love Crystal Meth'
shirt," reported the Associated Press wire service, ensuring this
important news would make it into papers across the country. "This Might
Be The Most Ironic Mugshot Ever," said BuzzFeed. "Not ideal mugshot
attire," snarked the Daily Mail, all the way over in Britain. "Walter
White was a genius," said the New York Post, referring to a character
from a TV show who was given the benefit of a backstory. "This woman?
Not so much."
Unlike cable's most artfully depicted anti-hero,
all we know about "this woman," whose arrest made international
headlines, is what has been said about her by police. We don't know what
led up to that moment (Did any of the reporters covering her arrest do
any reporting?) except that, according to the sheriff's department in
Laurel County, Kentucky, she and another person allegedly possessed
"3.37 grams of crystal meth and a set of digital scales." We also know
that under state law an intent to sell more than two grams of
methamphetamines (street value: about $200) makes one a "trafficker," a
fact that wasn't to be found in any of the 20,000 news stories that were
published about Deborah Asher, actual human being, within a week of
that arrest. While the worldwide web-browsing community snickered before
moving on to the next content, its object of contempt sat in a jail
cell grappling with the possibility of spending the next 10 to 20 years
Asher was reduced to that booking photo, originally
posted on Facebook by those who arrested her, and one sentence reducing
her life experience to "criminal." She was marked "bad," so gestures of
superiority and even celebration of her misfortune - disparaging the
intelligence, looks and class status of a stranger - were given a thin
veneer of moral justification.
"We're very judgmental people -
that's a human trait," noted Mariame Kaba, founding director of Project
NIA, a Chicago-based organization that promotes alternatives to
incarceration, when I spoke to her on the phone. "You have to work at
being nonjudgmental," she said, but mugshots discourage that, inviting
us instead to sit back in judgment and indulge that vulgar human desire
to feel better at the expense of some other poor wretch. "The
circulation of these kind of images allows people to play out that
judgment," Kaba added, "to be able to look at somebody else and see
someone who is worse off."
Some argue that the dissemination of mugshots is necessary, so we can identify "criminals" should they escape state custody.
the names and faces of those formally charged with crimes helps us
protect ourselves and allows us to make informed decisions on who we
want to associate with," Greg Rickabaugh, owner of the mugshot gallery
and crime reporting website AugustaCrime.com, told television station
WJBF. He was reacting to a new law in Georgia, passed by a legislature
not known for its bleeding-heart liberalism, which bars local police
departments from posting booking photos online. Mugshots are still
public records and as such are available upon request, but websites that
obtain the photos are required to remove them, without a fee, if
charges against the person in them have been dismissed.
is aimed at thwarting the dozens of websites that take these photos from
the state-sanctioned system and repost them in the hopes of getting the
person in them to pay hundreds of dollars to have them taken down, what
Rickabaugh calls the "predatory" mugshot websites, contrasting them
with the ostensibly legitimate exploitation exercised by websites like
his, which earn profit through the classier, indirect route of
advertising. Indeed, Mark Caramanica of the Reporters Committee for
Freedom argues that, on principle, both not only have a right to exist,
but have a right to easy, automated access to the photos of those whose
rights have been taken away.
"Should we shut down the entire
[mugshot] database because there are presumably bad actors out there?"
Caramanica told The New York Times (who the "bad actors" actually are is
left open to the reader's interpretation). "I think it's better if
journalists and the public, not the government, are the arbiters of what
the public gets to see."
Portraying the debate
over the routine posting of mugshots online as one between those old
(ostensible) foes, the free press and the state, is a smart public
relations strategy. It is also absurd: It is the state, after all, that
takes and then provides these photos to the press - photos the person
whose liberty the state has taken away would generally prefer not be
plastered across the media for friends and family to see. Like the other
profit-driven sites that post these photos, the corporate media is
effectively providing free press for the police, who get to show their
side of the story ("proof" of criminality) - often before the person
photographed has even had a chance to place their one phone call.
in examining the issue of mugshots - or, really, any matter of the
ethics of privacy - should we really stick to the narrow question of
whether one has a "right" to do something? Legal rights aside, is it the
right thing to do?
"Right 2 Know" is the slightly too defensive
name the Chattanooga Times Free Press has given to its own mugshot
gallery. Just looking at those featured on its homepage when I last
visited, the alleged criminals the public has an interest in seeing
shamed include a young man accused of underage drinking, a woman accused
of driving on a revoked license and a woman accused of driving under
the influence. The information is "presented here as a public service,"
the paper assures, the photos "gathered from open county sheriff's web
sites," showing the state to be a publishing partner (certainly calling
into question the position of the "fourth estate"). In fine print, we're
told that "people shown on this page have not been convicted of these
crimes and should be presumed innocent until proven guilty." If they are
found innocent and possess the right paperwork, the site will even take
down the legally declared person's photo, though by that point the
photo will have already been out there on the internet, where it might
very well serve defamatory purposes long into the future.
believe that there is a way to strike a balance between public interest
in information while really respecting folks' rights as individuals who
have not yet been convicted of anything," said Zachary Norris, executive
director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which seeks to
reduce the threat of incarceration facing communities of color. "And I
don't think we're striking the right balance at all with the publication
of these mugshots because, effectively, in that context the only
information you're getting about someone is that they did something
The use of that information becomes an ethical question
with which the journalism community must wrestle. "Recognize that legal
access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish
or broadcast," says the Society for Professional Journalists in its code
of ethics. "Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do."
this code is likely read almost exclusively by journalists working on
stories about ethics in journalism - and when it comes to publishing the
photos of the recently arrested, few seem to have given the issue much
thought. Erin Madigan, a spokesperson for the AP, said decisions at the
newswire "are made on a case-by-case basis," but neither BuzzFeed nor
The Washington Post responded when I asked if they had policies in place
governing the use of such photos.
"We're all human and we all
make mistakes," Norris told me. But the availability of these photos
works against our ability to identify with the humanity of those who've
been arrested. "In addition to that, these mugshots can have real
ramifications in terms of people's ability to get jobs, [and] real
ramifications in terms of their public reputation," he said. Be one a
naked profiteer or a publication ostensibly pursuing the public
interest, publishing these photos at all only "adds to an already
pernicious environment where poor people are disadvantaged by the
But what of the pretty ones? Though the
consumption of mugshots tends to focus on the wacky and conventionally
unattractive, lately there has been a noticeable uptick in attention
paid to what social media has dubbed the "#FelonBae." Jeremy Meeks took
Twitter by storm over the summer of 2014 with his dreamy blue eyes,
which were posted on the Facebook page of local police in Stockton,
California. "Hot mugshot guy," The Washington Post called him in a
report on his first courtroom appearance, which noted, almost as an
aside, that it wasn't all fun and games for the hottie: He learned that
he could spend up to 10 years in prison on a gun charge. "But," the Post
pointed out, "There are photos!"
"Felon bae" is a certifiable
trend. "Meet Your New 'Hot Mugshot Guy,'" reported The Daily Beast a few
weeks later when another man in California was arrested, allegedly for
assaulting a Fox News cameraman.
"These good-looking criminals
that circulate on social media that people trade, like cards - it
becomes that, just another player card," Mariame Kaba told Truthout.
"It's not actually a human being, at all, and it doesn't matter that
these folks have been accused of a crime that hasn't been proven." They
are, ultimately, more meat to be objectified, "with a complete and utter
disregard for people's humanity."
The Tampa Bay Times even
categorizes the bodies in police detention according to height, weight,
age and eye color, allowing the alleged felon fetishist more options for
sorting their potential "baes" than what's available on most dating
However, there are select cases in which the state fights
to prevent mugshots from ever seeing the light of day. When the Detroit
Free Press sought to publish the booking photos of four cops convicted
of accepting bribes and conspiring to deal cocaine, the US Marshals
Service refused to release to them. That prompted a lawsuit and, in
April 2014, a federal judge sided with the paper and its attorney,
Herschel Fink, who argued, according to the Associated Press, that the
public "has a legitimate interest in seeing who has been arrested and
charged with a crime."
But what exactly is that interest, and
does it matter who the arrestee is, or what the context of their alleged
crime may be? As US Department of Justice attorney Galen Thorp argued -
entirely out of the state's self-interest in this particular case -
that just publishing a mugshot could inflict serious damage on a person.
"An 18-year-old arrested for a federal misdemeanor who appeared in
court, pled guilty, did community service, and had his or her record
expunged, could find his or her booking photograph immortalized on the
Internet for every would-be employer to see for many years to come,"
Of course, if a mere photo of an arrest for a minor
crime can do such damage to a person, it raises the question: Why book
any teen, or anyone, over a nonviolent misdemeanor when that arrest
could prove much more damaging to society in the long run - once brought
into the legal system, one's chances of coming back are exponentially
greater - than the alleged offense? And, the cynicism of the state's
arguments aside, those who would further the ruining of someone's life
should ask themselves: to what end?
Indeed, what is the point,
even, of posting a bad cop's mugshot? Arguably, it could show that no
one is above the law - but of course, that principle is patently untrue:
A black teen who kills a dog gets 23 years in prison while a white cop
who kills a black teen, as a rule, gets maybe a paid vacation.
against posting people's mugshots just categorically," Kaba told
Truthout. "If I don't believe the mugshots of people without power have
meaning or purchase, then I don't think mugshots of people in power have
meaning or purchase," she said. Desiring vengeance - to see one's
enemies humiliated - may be understandable, but it's not a healthy basis
for a system of justice or a desire to which we ought to cater. "It's
the same kind of performance and spectacle that I think doesn't actually
lead to what we want," said Kaba, "which is a redress of whatever it is
that happened or, in some expansive way, justice."
This is not
to say that publicizing who has done harm in a community is without
merit. The power of social sanction, of shunning those who have violated
community norms, is in many ways a more powerful and effective mode of
accountability than just locking someone up for an arbitrary period of
time where, instead of learning healthier behaviors, anti-social
behavior is only reinforced.
"Particularly in the early 1960s to
the mid to late-1970s, many feminists used to post posters around their
community of rapists to alert other people and let them know what was
happening, on the one hand, and to basically out and shame that person
who has harmed people," Kaba said. "And I can understand that. I can see
the value in having that as a warning to other people."
photos being posted today are overwhelmingly not those of people who are
actively causing harm, but of people whose alleged offenses don't
deserve to even be lumped under the same heading of "crime": nonviolent
drug offenders, for instance, and disproportionately the poor and people
of color. Posting their photos without any context but that provided by
the state doesn't make us safer, but serves only to reinforce racist
assumptions of criminality.
How do we move forward, past a
practice of constant visual criminalization? Many advocates argue that
public records should remain public, upon request, but barring local law
enforcement from dumping these photos online is a demand that chills no
one's right to free speech.
We also must actively hold those who
fetishize mugshots accountable. "I think that we should be calling out
these entities that are making a spectacle of folks and making profit of
them in ways that don't jive with our idea of justice and common
decency," Norris said. There's no reason why "ethics in journalism"
should be the sole domain of video-game addicts who wish only to drive
feminists away from their toys. So long as they purport to have them,
editors should at least be forced to think about the ethics of what they
are doing when they expose powerless people to the online judgment and
ridicule of a global readership. And when journalists are forced to
reflect on their role in the state-sanctioned system of
shaming-by-mugshot, they may even reconsider their practices.
really don't think that the role of a community newspaper is to punish
or embarrass anybody," said Ben Carlson, general manger of The Anderson
News in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. At least, he added, it shouldn't be:
Eight years after the paper first began publishing the booking photos of
those accused of driving under the influence of alcohol, Carlson
announced it would do so no more. In an editorial noted by the Society
of Professional Journalists, Carlson argued that the press shouldn't be
in the business of adding "a level of punishment, or at least
embarrassment, beyond what is imposed by a judge."
None of the
mugshots The Anderson News published went viral (nor had any effect on
local DUI rates), but Carlson saw the impact his small-town Kentucky
paper was having on the lives not just of those arrested, but on their
families too. A child whose parent is in the paper is going to hear
about it at school, effectively collectivizing the shame. As one father
told the SPJ, "I deserved everything I got," but his innocent teenage
sons were the ones who "got rode over pretty hard" by their classmates
when his mugshot hit the press.
Those with much bigger platforms
from which to name and shame ought to think carefully about how they
use that power, what they are actually accomplishing when they wield it
and whose interests are really being served.