More than 700 people have signed an online petition calling on the Philadelphia Police Department to “stop shaming defendants” by posting their mugshots on Facebook.
The petition specifically targets the Philadelphia Police Special Operation’s Facebook page, which since January has posted about 50 photos of drug defendants — nearly all of whom are black or Latino — alongside their age, race and location of their arrest.
Posting photos on social media that then can be shared and commented on “invites a kind of invective and speech that is not just hateful but antithetical to public safety,” said Hannah Sassaman, policy director for the Media Mobilizing Project, whose group created the petition to police Commissioner Richard Ross late last week. “F***ing bum” and “Stone Ugly” were some of the comments under defendants’ photos posted in recent weeks.
Police mug shots are public record under state law. Philadelphia police generally release them only within 30 days of an arrest. Nationally, releasing mugshots serves as a way for police to show progress in their fight against crime or, in the case of suspects not yet arrested, solicit the public’s help in catching elusive offenders or warn citizens of a suspect on the lam.
But criminal defense attorney Marni Jo Snyder argued that posting arrestees’ photos online threatens a core value of criminal justice – innocent until proven guilty. Because images can live online forever, posting defendants’ photos online can haunt efforts to move on from their crimes – and it’s especially unfair if the defendant eventually is found not guilty, Sassaman agreed.
“The police department has actually been pretty good about reforming practices in regards to identification procedures,” Snyder said. “So it seems to me they shouldn’t muck up the waters … This seems to me to be creating a spectacle out of people who are supposed to be presumed innocent, and really poking fun at them, because I don’t see an important investigative technique that’s being used here.”
But Lt. John Stanford, a police spokesman, said posting photos of arrested suspects assures the public that police are working to make communities safer.
“This is important for the residents that live in these neighborhoods throughout the city where this criminal activity is taking place, because when they see these postings, they know and feel that the police care about their concerns and neighborhoods,” Stanford said.
Besides, he added, “each of these people have been arrested for committing a crime. We are never looking to shame or embarrass anyone.”
WHYY’s Bobby Allyn contributed to this report.