When should we publish mugshots?
We ran two mugshots on page 1 Wednesday. State Police had released the photos of this father and daughter when troopers arrested them last year in what was then a murder case — since pleaded down to manslaughter. Police probably wouldn’t release mugshots now, even in a murder case.
That’s because earlier this year, New York’s governor and legislature changed the state Freedom of Information Law to exclude arrest booking photos from documents the public has a right to access. The governor tried to do the same for all arrest booking information, but thankfully, lawmakers didn’t go that far. It would’ve led to secret arrests, like in authoritarian countries.
Nevertheless, we and many other newspapers opposed the mugshot change. It gives police and only police the power to decide which arrestees’ faces the public gets to see and which they don’t. For instance, what if some police chief or sheriff is persuaded to withhold the mugshot of a political ally charged with a dangerous crime but to release the mugshot of some other person — perhaps someone he or she doesn’t like — charged with a less serious crime?
On the other hand, last month I got a taste of what it can look like when every arrestee’s mugshot is in everyone’s hands.
Over spring break, I drove with my daughters down to Alabama to visit my parents, and while paying for gas in Georgia, I noticed a tabloid on the counter called Bad and Busted! (Yes, the exclamation point was part of its name.) It was filled with almost nothing but mugshots — as well as plenty of ads paid for by businesses supporting this kind of thing. And it wasn’t even free — it cost a dollar. Apparently there were plenty of people willing to pay to laugh at their neighbors’ woes.
A little bit of internet research led me to an interview with the the publisher of Bad and Busted! in Flagpole, a weekly newspaper in Athens, Georgia. He said he provides a public service. To his credit, I suppose, he said he didn’t let people buy their way out of having their mugshots published, which meant rich people were the ones who gave him the most grief. Unfortunately, there are plenty of other such mugshot publishers, online as well as in print, who make money by charging arrested people to remove their mugshots from the galleries.
This, to me, seems a lot like blackmail. But even the motive behind Bad and Busted! and its ilk is pretty disheartening. It capitalizes on people’s mistakes, often on the worst days of their lives, and profits by offering that up as entertainment to a jeering public. It lets small-minded people feel better than some of their neighbors, or else gleeful to see others pulled down to their level. Any way you cut it, it’s mean.
And yet it is important for a healthy community to see a record of arrests. The way they are presented, however, matters. It says a lot about the publisher’s motives.
At the Enterprise, we believe it’s important to record every arrest in the greater Tri-Lakes area in our police and fire calls, published daily on page 3. To ensure fairness, it’s essential to be consistent and comprehensive by including all arrests.
We know this embarrasses those whose names appear there, but we also believe it’s a just and restrained consequence. We know it’s effective in making people not want to break the law — even embarrassment after the fact can go a long way toward preventing a reoccurrence — and yet as consequences go, it’s not that severe. We don’t even put these arrests on our website; they’re just for our local community of print readers.
Just as it’s important for members of a healthy community to know about each other’s achievements, they also need to know when boundaries may have been crossed. If arrests are noted simply, without drama, we believe community members will generally react soberly and not feel licensed to pile on and punish these folks further.
The Enterprise’s motive is not to exploit arrests to make money; if that was the case, we would put the police blotter on page 1, with mugshots if they were available. Instead, we use mugshots only for particularly newsworthy cases, as most newspapers do. You won’t find that kind of restraint in the likes of Bad and Busted!
Still, I know there’s room for improvement in the way the Enterprise handles arrests. When people’s charges or dropped or reduced after we publish them, we always invite them to show us court paperwork to prove it, and then we will put that in, too — but they almost never do. Understandably, they don’t want their name printed again. Also, local and county courts are hard for us to get records from. I’d be very interested in finding better ways to follow local cases through the court system.
I’m curious what our readers think about all this.
I debated over whether to include those mugshots on page 1 Wednesday. We had done so as we followed this case in the past, and I didn’t feel that the change in state policy should necessarily change our news decisions. But I’m not sure exactly where to draw the line. We are editing this newspaper for you, the readers, and we’d like to know what you think is fair. Please share your thoughts on this publicly through a letter to the editor or a Facebook post, or send me a private message at firstname.lastname@example.org, by mail or in person.
The Enterprise exists to serve the community of the Adirondacks, and a healthy community needs both justice and human decency. Please help us share information in a way that serves those goals.