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Mug shots are vital parts of news stories

The San Francisco Police Department announced last week it will stop releasing mug shots of people arrested unless those people pose a threat to the public.

The decision comes in an effort to stop perpetuating racial stereotypes, police Chief Bill Scott announced. He said the department no longer will release booking photos of suspects to the media or allow officers to post them online.

Booking photos, of course, are taken when someone is arrested. They often are made public whether or not the person is prosecuted for the alleged crime, which some argue can undermine the presumption of innocence and help perpetuate stereotypes.

Jack Glaser, a public policy professor at the University of California Berkeley who researches racial stereotyping and whose work Scott consulted, said data shows black people who are arrested are more likely to have their cases dismissed by prosecutors, the Associated Press is reporting. But the mug shots live on.

Some news organizations, likewise, are following that same line of thinking and have altered the way they use police mug shots in their publications.

Newspaper chain GateHouse Media, which had used slide shows of mug shots on newspaper web sites, stopped doing that last month, but the chain’s newspapers still are using mug shots with news articles. The Houston Chronicle, likewise, stopped using mug shot galleries earlier this year. The Orlando Sentinel in Florida announced a similar change.

I personally agree that mug shot “galleries” may be sensational and offer little editorial value to a reputable news website. This newspaper does not offer such galleries or slide shows of people arrested.

We do, however, see news value in sharing mug shots with stories that we publish. Certainly, our readers do, too. Mug shots help to identify who was arrested for a crime, particularly if the defendant has a common name. I personally have looked up a mug shot on the county jail web site because I heard an arrest was made of someone who shared the name of my acquaintance, and I had to be sure it wasn’t the same person. In those cases, isn’t it important to be able to quickly confirm identity by looking at a picture?

What if someone, who is recognizable by appearance but whose identity was not known to a neighbor, is arrested for a violent crime? Certainly, publication of a photograph would provide an important part of the story that the neighbor wouldn’t otherwise have known.

Police use mug shots when distributing “BOLO” (Be On The Look Out) notifications. They often provide those photos to the media to help them spread the word. That’s because, unequivocally, there is value in photographs.

In California, leaders argue that the release of booking photos of suspects who are arrested can undermine the presumption of innocence and help perpetuate stereotypes.

But I believe it’s the failure to release identifying information about a suspect that puts us on a slippery slope. In America, suspects cannot be secretly arrested. Their names must be released. To use the San Francisco argument, then wouldn’t the simple release of an arrested suspect’s name also “undermine the presumption of innocence”?

And frankly, this is not their decision to make. The issue of police withholding mug shots, for whatever reason, could likely be challenged in court. I admit, I am not educated on California’s open records laws. But in Ohio, police booking photos are considered to be part of the public record. That means the photos must be released upon request.

If they refuse, it’s likely to become a point of legal contention.

In my newsroom, we know it is important to provide detailed information to our readers. That’s why, when we are reporting on an arrest, we request the mug shot. That request is not driven by racism or any other nefarious reason, but simply by our obligation to report the news – all of it.

blinert@tribtoday.com

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