After Arrests, Quandary for Police on Posting Booking Photos


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Sheena Foley, 28, in her apartment in Burlington, Vt. She was stunned to see her booking photograph posted on the Facebook page of the Police Department there.

Credit
Oliver Parini for The New York Times

SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. — Sheena Foley was stunned and chagrined last month when a traffic violation — she had rolled through a stop sign while driving without a current license, she said — led not just to an arrest but to public embarrassment: The Police Department here posted her booking photograph on its Facebook page.

“I actually felt like I was a murderer or selling drugs or something,” Ms. Foley, 28, said. “Are they doing this because they think if they put your picture up you won’t do it again?”

For years, the department had posted every booking photograph on Facebook, hoping to keep the city informed. Some images drew venomous comments, often directed at the accused, before that function was turned off.

This month, after hearing concerns from residents, a relative of a suspect and even the city attorney, Police Chief Trevor Whipple ended the practice of posting the images on Facebook. (Older ones are still up.)

“Posting on the Internet is kind of like a bell you can’t unring,” Chief Whipple said at the time.

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Police Chief Trevor Whipple of South Burlington, Vt., no longer puts booking photographs on Facebook.

Credit
Oliver Parini for The New York Times

But uploading the photographs has become a common practice at some police departments from New England to California, where Facebook pages and department websites have become a popular spot for posting digital lineups.

Police officers often say their aim is transparency, not public shaming. But Ms. Foley’s case highlights a challenge for the digital age: When does public notice become public punishment in a world where digital images can live forever?

Many states consider the photographs to be public information, and those deemed newsworthy are published by the news media, sometimes in great numbers. But as the police put them on their own websites, lawyers, residents and the accused have raised concerns. They say the practice can serve as its own punishment and violate the privacy of individuals who have not been convicted of a crime.

“We have undoubtedly noticed a trend toward putting more and more prearraignment arrest and mug shot records online, and that’s a troubling trend,” said Lee Rowland, a staff lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. Police Facebook pages can draw attention to people who may never be convicted and whose arrests might otherwise have avoided as much public notice, she added.

“We’re uncomfortable with law enforcement using shame tactics before people receive due process in a court of law,” Ms. Rowland said. “It’s flatly inappropriate.”

But it is a complex issue, she added, because the First Amendment protects the rights of organizations to post those images.

The Internet has, in recent years, become a vast repository for booking photographs, in part because of large websites like mugshots.com, which post them and then charge hundreds of dollars for their removal. Scott A. Ciolek, a lawyer in Ohio, filed a lawsuit against several sites in 2012, and some states have passed laws making it illegal for sites to charge to remove a photograph.

“When you have your mug shot online in any form, it has the effect of limiting your future prospects in all avenues of your life,” Mr. Ciolek said.

While some of those websites have lost their influence, he said, smaller, local versions have emerged. Some police departments have become part of that landscape, though they do not charge for the removal of images.

“When law enforcement is doing it, it helps to reinforce the idea that this is O.K.,” Mr. Ciolek said.

Social media websites for law enforcement agencies function like a virtual bulletin board on the town green. Their pages feature most-wanted posters and grainy surveillance photographs. They often ask residents for tips, promote community events and even post good-natured jokes.

“It really is a tool for us to tell our positive stories and, at times when mistakes are made, to also acknowledge our mistakes,” said Hassan Aden, the director of research and programs for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

While many departments do not post the images, Mr. Aden, a former police chief in Greenville, N.C., said he believed it was a common practice — one that officers needed to consider carefully.

“Gaining community trust, building police legitimacy, doing the right things involve very, very careful measurement of the impact of your action, and sometimes, some things are just not worth it,” he said.

Nevertheless, in cities like Albany and smaller ones like Westbrook, Me., the images, or links to pages that show them, have become fixtures on department web pages.

“Basically, it’s the same thing that for years has been going to the local newspapers,” said Capt. Michael Nugent of the Westbrook Police Department.

In South Portland, Me., for the month of May, police officers resolved to post a booking photograph every time someone was arrested on charges of drunken driving. The images were removed after a few days.

“The discussion that we’re generating in the community is hopefully curbing people’s decision to get behind the wheel” while being impaired, said Lt. Frank Clark, one of the administrators of the South Portland Police Department’s Facebook page. “The overriding intent is not to embarrass someone or shame someone.”

The page, nevertheless, drew comments judging the accused. “He will never change,” one person wrote of a drunken-driving suspect.

Michael Mattern, the chief jailer for Marshall County, Ind., posts every booking photograph taken by the sheriff’s department, although he takes them down after seven days.

“I don’t want our facility to be in the shadows,” Mr. Mattern said, adding that he decided to start posting the images to counter inaccurate news media accounts of arrest reports.

It has become a feature that attracts readers and prompts questions from those arrested. “People smile for their mug shots sometimes now,” Mr. Mattern said. “It’s kind of weird, because they’ll ask, ‘Is this going on the Facebook?’ It’s an odd thing to be asked.”

But here in South Burlington, Chief Whipple and other city officials began to worry that making the images public could undermine the city’s restorative justice program, which allows the accused to admit wrongdoing and resolve their crimes with a panel and their victims, and with less public scrutiny than in a traditional court system.

The city attorney, Jim Barlow, said he had additional concerns.

“There’s no due process that goes along with public judgment and scrutiny,” he said. “Oftentimes, that public judgment can be more damaging to an individual than the criminal penalty.”

Occasionally, the public attention can also be an opportunity. The Police Department in Stockton, Calif., embraced social media as a way to talk with residents even as the city’s bankruptcy led to reductions in the police force. Officers posted booking photographs for gang- and gun-related arrests to Facebook.

Last summer, the department arrested Jeremy Meeks, then 30, on felony weapons charges and posted his photograph on Facebook. The image of a photogenic Mr. Meeks went viral. Though he is in federal prison, he has secured a talent manager, who says Mr. Meeks will become a star upon his release.

“The camera loves his face,” said Jim Jordan, the talent manager.



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