Mug shots are a snapshot of the worst days in people’s lives. They are caught when someone has been accused of a crime, but not convicted; fodder for the voyeuristic impulses of the public even if they are of no use to the public.
No matter what happens next – whether a person is cleared, convicted, served their sentence or their criminal record removed – many of those photos continue to circulate on the Internet. They can continue to appear for years, even in searches when someone is looking for a job, when they are trying to build a secure life, or even in the news when they are victims of a crime. They can make people the target of racism, threats and public humiliation.
In recent years, there has been a shift away from public posting of mugshots in the media and by some law enforcement. Several news outlets said they will no longer post daily mugshot galleries or post mugshots of people who have been arrested but not yet convicted of a crime.
But that showdown has not yet hit one of the largest platforms in the world: Facebook.
The platform continues to allow law enforcement agencies to post mugshots, usually of people who have not been convicted of a crime. If a local law enforcement agency doesn’t actively post mugshots on Facebook, sometimes individual users will: A network of amateur-run “local mugshot” pages has spread across the platform.
Often the person pictured in the mugshot will be recognized, or even tagged, in the comments, leading to an accusation from members of their community. The more people comment and react to the mugshot, the more the post will travel through the social media platform. Even if the individual is never convicted of a crime, there is no mechanism to remove the image.
Facebook hasn’t responded to a request for comment, but it often states that it is a neutral platform rather than a publisher who makes editorial decisions on the contents of their site. In reality, Facebook moderates the content and the company has done so policies that prohibit certain content he deems it too harmful. Although the application is inconsistent, Facebook claims to ban bullying, harassment, hate speech and posts containing personal or confidential information which could cause physical or financial harm.
Mugshots typically contain or invite all of the above. Pages run by people who select mugshots from local sheriff’s department websites and repost them on Facebook attract tens of thousands of users who gleefully watch the arrests of people in their communities. Because mugshot pages are location-specific, Facebook users often recognize people in mugshots and comment with intrusive comments about their lives.
“It’s rubbish because someone else is raising their kids,” commented a member of the Niagara County Mugshots group – which has 24,000 followers – on a photo of a mugshot. “Dude didn’t give her her d, he tried to get her, guessing from her expression on her face,” another group member commented on a different mugshot. The Niagara County mugshot page links to a merchandising page that sells T-shirts that say, “PUBLICLY SHAME YOUR LOCAL SEX OFFENDER.”
Even when group members don’t recognize the arrested individual, the comments typically turn into hateful vitriol. “Make sure you disinfect it before releasing it back into the wild,” posted one commenter. “Another Polish monster removed from society. However, is justice really served? Locking up a Pole is like sending a dog to prison. They have no idea what they did wrong or why they are there, “wrote another.
“They are producing content like any other content creator. It’s to get clicks, it’s to engage. “
– Rutgers associate professor Sarah Esther Lageson on law enforcement Facebook pages
Even some law enforcement officials have acknowledged the damage caused by the mugshots leaked online. A spokesperson for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office praised the Houston Chronicle for eliminating mugshot galleries. The San Francisco Police Department announced in 2020 it would no longer release mugshots without an immediate public safety reason. The following year, California state legislators limited law enforcement posted mugshots on social media for people arrested on non-violent charges.
But across the country, cops continue to post mugshots of the arrests they make to promote their work, at the expense of those charged but not convicted of a crime. The Lee County Sheriff’s Office in Florida regularly posts mugshots with salacious captions on its Facebook page, where it has 205,000 followers. The sheriff’s office refers to the people he arrests as “thugs” and “criminals”. The captions are written in a way that suggests the goal is to make mugshots go viral. The posts describe the alleged crimes in theatrical detail and include hashtags and jokes about the defendants, including a reference to a man arrested over Christmas as a “Grinch”.
Facebook users often respond by praising law enforcement and thanking them for keeping their community safe, even in cases where it is not clear that the arrested individual posed a major threat.
Facebook’s platform allows police departments to post their own content, rather than relying on the media to cover up their arrests and messages, said Sarah Esther Lageson, an associate professor at Rutgers University who researches the growth of online crime data. mug shots and criminal records.
“They are checking the narrative and using Facebook and mugshots as a way to show how busy they are. They are producing content like any other content creator. It’s to get clicks, it’s to engage, “Lageson said.” And for what? Who is bearing the brunt of the problem there? He is the person who will be publicly shamed. ”
The Lee County Sheriff’s Office does not seem to suppress comments even when they are racist or threatening. Their mugshot posts include comments like: “Send Pedro back to Haiti”, “I hope he gets what he deserves in prison, I hope he finds out what it’s like to be violated by other inmates”, “Illegal?” and “Will he get a slap on the hand because he’s a minority, disadvantaged?”
The Lee County Sheriff’s Office often publishes mugshots of children, including many who will never be found guilty of a crime. Those who are later found guilty may also be eligible for the deletion of their juvenile criminal record as an adult.
Caitlyn Mumma, a public information officer at the sheriff’s office, said they try to remove mugshots of individuals whose documents have been deleted, but not for people who have never been convicted of a crime after their arrest “because it is still a public record even if the charges are dropped.”
Last year, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office posted a mugshot of a 12-year-old boy accused of violent threats on social media, with a caption that includes the boy’s home address. The image of the child, captured in what was probably one of the worst days in his life, was shared 27,000 times and has 45,000 comments. Many of the commentators took it upon themselves to diagnose the child with severe mental illness, citing the absence of tears in the mugshot.
The 12-year-old’s parents could not be reached for comment, but Lageson has done extensive research into how people respond to their mugshot exploding online. “They are totally overwhelmed. And even if they feel it’s an invasion of privacy, or a violation of due process, their instinct is to avoid it as much as possible, ”Lageson said.
This leads to avoiding any circumstances that might lead others to discover the mugshot. “Online dating, volunteering in schools, churches, applying for promotions, asking for a safer or more stable housing or job – these are all real things that people have told me they stopped doing because of this,” he said. called Lageson. “And of course, these are all the things that make us safer, because they are all factors that prevent crime.”
In 2020, Facebook released a call for proposals from academics seeking funding for research related to digital privacy. Lageson made a proposal that included creating a process to allow people to request the removal of their mugshot from the platform, especially if their record was deleted.
Lageson did not receive the grant.