What’s the difference between a police officer and a journalist? It sounds like a joke, but there is a good reason for asking the question. Police officers give mug shots and arrest details to journalists, and journalists, in general, write stories about those arrests according to their professional judgment and ethics. They keep in mind that all suspects are considered innocent until they are proven guilty in a court of law.
It turns out that police officers may not be using that same degree of professional judgment and adherence to the presumption of innocence — at least when they’re posting on departmental Facebook accounts.
Police departments across the country have been attempting to engage the public by writing wry, slightly humorous accounts of arrests they have made and posting them on Facebook. Some people think that’s terrific — why shouldn’t the police be entertaining as they report on neighborhood events?
Others point out that real people can get seriously hurt by pre-trial shaming like this.
“It makes them the butt of a joke on what for many people is probably their worst day,” said the campaign director of a civil rights advocacy organization called Color of Change that recently succeeded in getting the Philadelphia police to stop posting arrestees’ photos on its Special Operations Facebook page.
“The impact of having a mug shot posted on social media for all to see can be incredibly damaging for folks that are parents, for folks that have jobs, for folks that have lives they have to come back to,” she said.
A young cosmetology student from Philadelphia knows just what she means. He was an innocent bystander swept up in a drug raid when he went to a client’s home to cut their hair. His mug shot went up on the departmental Facebook page, where his family and cosmetology school quickly learned the details of his arrest.
It was humiliating to be suspected of drug activity, especially when he wasn’t guilty, he says. He almost got kicked out of school, and was only able to stay because most of the charges against him were dropped before trial. He was acquitted of the final charge.
“I was angry at the time,” he told the Associated Press. “I was found not guilty. They’re just putting people’s faces up there like it’s OK.”
Beyond the issue of whether this public shaming violates defendants’ rights, it also may not be as engaging as police departments expect. One man wrote to his local department, “Your holier than thou attitude is part of the reason why people don’t like/don’t respect police.”