This website frequently features the mugshots of people who have allegedly committed crimes. Nearly all of these individuals, at the time our posts go up, have not been convicted of any wrongdoing. Still, their mugshots are readily available, so we publish them. But should we?
In a recent essay for Truthout, Charles Davis challenges media outlets to reconsider before using the mugshots of private citizens who have not been convicted of a crime. When outlets publish mugshots, Davis argues, they’re effectively disseminating unfiltered propaganda for law enforcement agencies, who have a clear interest in depicting their charges as deviants in as many forums as possible.
Here is Davis:
A 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.”
There are a variety of defenses for the publication of mugshots, such as the public’s right to know who among them was arrested for allegedly committing a crime; the belief that mugshots serve as effective instruments of social pressure; and, perhaps most saliently, the principle of freedom of information. By definition, the first two only apply when the arrested subject is actually found guilty at a later date—rendering them moot. That leaves the principle of freedom of information (i.e., open access to government records), a cause with considerable and understandable support among journalists.
In practice, the publication of mugshots does not primarily benefit members of the public or the press. Instead, it primarily benefits the police. Here is Davis again:
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.
Mugshots naturally direct the public’s attention to specific arrestees. But they also help maintain or increase the same public’s opinion of the cops who detained them. By furnishing reporters with the faces of people they’ve arrested, Davis argues, the police are often able to delay or bury questions about why those people were arrested in first place. They function, in other words, as pro-police propaganda. And media outlets are eager to spread it for them.
This is not the only problem with mugshots, though. Another point Davis brings up (but does not emphasize) is that, while typically unflattering, mugshots differ dramatically from other kinds of photographs that media outlets frequently publish.
Mugshots require coercion at every stage of their manufacture. Their subjects are forced to stand in front of a camera after being physically detained, usually at the discretion of one or two police officers. These subjects do not consent to their photographs being taken, or even the way they’re taken. And in many jurisdictions, police departments perform one final indignity upon arrestees: Automatically publishing their mugshots on the internet—including, in an increasing number of cities, social media. What other kind of picture is created this way?
It is true that, under U.S. law, photographers can go into a public space and take a picture of a person standing around without having to obtain that person’s consent. But that person has recourse—he can leave the public space, or never enter it in the first place. A person who appears in a mugshot has no such recourse. That person was forcibly transported to a police station, placed against a wall, and finally photographed by officers vested with the legal right to kill people. Mugshots are obtained at the point of a gun.
The most comparable situation would seem to be perp-walks, which is where police officers (most famously in New York City) parade the arrested subject before photographers in a public space. But perp-walks differ in a number of important ways. For instance, detainees being perp-walked are usually permitted to obscure their faces (often with their shirt or a sufficiently large coat); they can also prepare for their perp-walk in advance. Furthermore, the police officers controlling their movement are in full view of civilians. It is a relatively transparent, if still undignified, procedure.
Mugshots reverse this scenario. Detainees having theirs taken are forbidden from obscuring any part of their face or person, whereas the officials involved in mugshots’ production—the arresting officers, the booking officers, the police photographers—are never shown or named, at least in the actual picture. And unlike perp-walks, mugshots are processed in the bowels of police precincts, far away from civilian observation. All of this means that mugshots contain very little context, which in turn helps mask the duress inherent in their creation.
This is why mugshots are so humiliating, and so hard to look away from: They intentionally make it difficult, and sometimes impossible, to recognize the fear and vulnerability of the people they depict, even when their fear and their vulnerability are staring right at us. As Charles Davis argues elsewhere in his essay, their utility as propaganda is so effective that we reflexively deny our empathies to anyone pictured as criminal or deviant. The media should not be in the business of serving the P.R. interests of police departments, especially when those interests involve the degradation of human beings.
Any police reforms addressing the dissemination of mugshots lie beyond the scope of this piece. But I think Davis is right. Gawker should think twice before publishing mugshots of people who have not been convicted of crimes, and contemplate ceasing to publish any mugshots at all. To do otherwise is to give the police exactly what they want, at the direct expense of a comparatively powerless population.