Criminal Justice

Criminal Verite

Mug shots-funny and unusual punishment

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Murder rates have dropped during the last decade. Same with rape, robbery, assault, burglary, and theft. Yet somehow we're in the midst of the greatest mug shot epidemic the world has ever known.

Every year, more than 14 million people are arrested in the U.S.—and you've probably seen half of them. On the Web, in newspapers, and over the airwaves, the mug shot is king, the signature form of narrative in the Twitter Age. What else communicates so much specificity and mystery so concisely? What else packs so much into a single image: humor, tragedy, unparalleled guidance on which neck tattoos to avoid? It doesn't hurt that mug shots can still deliver the illicit charge that comes with nonconsensual disclosure. Sure, there are a few beaming boozeheads and upbeat probation violators who spoil the mood by, well, mugging for the cameras. But most mug shot subjects look profoundly unexcited to be starring in their very own episode of Punk'd: Law Enforcement Edition. Amid our current plague of recidivist exhibitionists, such reticence is a rare commodity. Who isn't going to look?

An ever-growing number of law enforcement agencies and media outlets are happy to capitalize on our voyeuristic interest. If you want to know which city has cuter hookers, St. Paul or Peoria, their official city websites regularly publish mug shots of recently arrested prostitutes and johns. (St. Paul wins by a nose.) If you'd like to see who's doing most of the drunk driving or shoplifting on Long Island, Newsday.com now maintains an extensive gallery of local arrestees. (Websites for other newspapers, such as the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, have featured Newsday's mug shots too, presumably so readers in every part of the country can know whom to avoid if they ever find themselves in Sag Harbor.) Specialized sites such as Mugshots.com and TheSmokingGun.com curate their collections with a more discerning eye, featuring only the famous, or those with defiantly unrepentant hair, or those who, in addition to all the usual traumas and humiliations that come with arrest, have the misfortune of being heckled by their own clothing during their mug shot sessions. Smile, grim-looking sexual predator in the World's Greatest Dad T-shirt: You're about to become famous!

In the 1880s, when a French crime fighter named Alphonse Bertillon pioneered the mug shot as a unique form of portraiture, the photographs he took were expected to do one thing: Help establish an individual's identity at a time when driver's licenses, fingerprint files, and Facebook pages didn't exist. Today mug shots are still used to identify, but we also want them to punish, deter, and entertain. Unfortunately, they do such a good job of the latter that we've been indifferent to the ways they short-circuit due process. But while we're gawking at the haunted eyes of a Midwestern meth freak or the haunted hair of Nick Nolte, cops across America are using virtual rogues' galleries to normalize the idea that the government has the right to punish you without bothering to convict you of a crime.

Perhaps because mug shots don't need much value adding from would-be Pulitzer winners to capture a reader's attention, publishing them is not the shortest path to praise from journalistic elites. Yet what informed citizen isn't interested in knowing exactly who's getting arrested in his neighborhood, and for what? In the crowning example of mug shot proliferation, the last decade has seen the creation of numerous ink-on-wood-pulp newspapers devoted exclusively to the form, with names like Gotch-ya!, Busted, Cellmates, and The Slammer. They're typically founded by undercapitalized entrepreneurs with little or no prior experience in the newspaper business. They're most often distributed at gas stations, liquor stores, and corner markets in the sort of neighborhoods more likely to be featured on Cops than HGTV. They go for $1 apiece, and at a time when traditional newspapers can barely give their products away, they're selling like hotcakes. Local MugSHOTS is the Gannett Group of the genre. Introduced in 2000, the 12-page tabloid features 250 to 300 mug shots per issue. Dozens of county-specific versions appear in 10 states now. Its publisher, who goes by the name Max Cannon, says approximately 250,000 copies in all are printed for the various biweekly editions, and that some counties have print runs of as high as 20,000.

Thanks to those 14 million annual arrestees, there is plenty of room for growth. But are all mug shots fit to print? Public shaming may represent a cost-effective alternative to traditional forms of sentencing, and as public shaming goes, having your mug shot appear on a police department website actually sounds a lot more agreeable than, say, standing outside a Walgreen's with a sign identifying you as a shoplifter.

If you do end up in front of that Walgreen's, however, you've also spent some time in front of a judge or jury, who ultimately found you guilty. With mug shots, that's not necessarily the case. The city of St. Paul, Minnesota, which started publishing photographs of prostitution arrestees in print in the 1980s and brought its operation to the Web in 1997, is regarded as the pioneer of online public humiliation. Following the city's lead, an ever-expanding list of law enforcement agencies now post mug shots of the people they arrest—but don't necessarily convict—in an explicit effort to deter crime.

In general, mug shots have always carried the heavy suggestion of guilt, as if getting caught in the act of being arrested is tantamount to getting caught in the act of committing a crime. It isn't, though, and that's one reason why until relatively recently, many law enforcement agencies, including those operated by the federal government, were reluctant to release mug shots to the press or the public. Indeed, in 1905 a New York City magistrate named Alfred E. Ommen was so concerned about exposing the head shots of possibly innocent citizens to the "public gaze" that he argued, in the pages of the Journal of Social Science, that "it ought to be a misdemeanor for the Police Department to photograph or measure a man merely charged with a crime."

While few of Ommen's colleagues in the law enforcement world seemed to share his opinion, until 10 years ago or so it typically took a Freedom of Information Act request, or in extreme cases a lawsuit, to expose a mug shot to the public gaze. In the Internet era, that has changed radically. In 1996 Peoria police refused to grant access to its mug shots until it was sued by a local attorney who wanted to publish photos of people who'd been arrested for soliciting prostitutes. By 2005 the Peoria Police Department had started publishing photos of arrested johns and prostitutes itself, on the city's official website.

Like most of these sites, Peoria's is careful to include a disclaimer that the individuals depicted on it are "presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law." But if there's a chance that the people on display there haven't committed a crime, why are they being punished? As soon as a law enforcement agency presents its online rogues' gallery as a form of deterrence, it transforms the pictures into a form of punishment as well. If appearing in this context is a fate so unpleasant that it can persuade other people to avoid engaging in illicit behavior, then surely it constitutes a penalty. And it's a penalty that's being applied without the hassle of due process.

We tend to overlook this fact because, frankly, it spoils the mood. The presumption of guilt makes it
easier to justify laughing at 23-going-on-zombie crack whores and bugeyed misfits sporting felony-caliber mullets. They deserve the derision they get—they're criminals! But the joke is really on us. As law enforcement agencies expand their powers of surveillance, as they encourage us to think of punishment without due process as standard operating procedure, we not only tolerate it, we click and click and ask for more. If America's citizenry were more uniformly presentable, and its mug shots correspondingly less entertaining, we might protest these developments more strongly. Instead, we simply laugh at the latest person guilty of wearing a cow costume while being arrested, then pass along the link to our friends.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer in San Francisco.

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33 responses to “Criminal Verite

  1. It may be a Threadjack, but I had a dream last night that Ron Paul was stabbed and killed.

    Just in case it happens, I want oracle cred.

    I now return you to your regularly scheduled thread…

  2. Taktix? wins the threadjack.

  3. the Twitter Age

    Nope, no, nuh-uh, and stop.

  4. “but I had a dream last night that Ron Paul was stabbed and killed.”

    By Rip Torn after an argument over a pot deal gone bad? Dude, I had the same dream!

  5. If Rip Torn stabs Ron Paul, I’ll pay anything for the video.

    “He said ‘Fuck you, dad’. So I said ‘Fuck you, fuck me. Fuck you, fuck me”…and I NEVER FINGERED FREDDY.”

  6. Actually, I bet Paul could take Torn. He looks pretty spry for his age.

    But that Torn is sneaky…

  7. Epi
    Going to see Watchmen today?

    I was supposed to but my wife took off half a day so I’m going to spend it with her (I am Mister Nice Guy). Now I’m taking off Thursday to go see it and The Wrestler.

  8. I saw Watchmen Saturday in Boston. Many opiates were involved. It was interesting, and the people I was with who had read the comic really, really liked it.

  9. I don’t know what Beato’s talking about. I remember the mug shots of Nolte and Gibson. If celebrates are arrested the mug shot gets play. There must have been one for Michael Jackson, Paris Hilton, Tommy Chong, etc. etc. but I don’t remember them.

    And then there’s this:

    If you want to know which city has cuter hookers, St. Paul or Peoria, their official city websites regularly publish mug shots of recently arrested prostitutes and johns. (St. Paul wins by a nose.)

    I tried to fact check that. You have to drill pretty deep, and be on a mission, in both cities sites to find what them. I don’t know that any of what I saw could qualify as “cute”.

  10. Come’on Warren,

    You really couldn’t imagine some jerkoff prosecutor using a picture of someone hastily dragged out of bed by cops as evidence of one charecter, or lack of?

    You have a lot more faith in the legal system than I, sir…

  11. Was that Rip Torn or Rip Taylor?

  12. I think an Alan Moore mug shot could be pretty awesome. What, with the beard and all…

  13. I’d hit that at 2:30am after a few double Tullys!

  14. I seem to remember a Mike Tyson mugshot where he looked the same as he normally does.

  15. I applaud the good taste the author has shown in omitting all hyperlinks from this document. Mr. Beato’s mugshot descriptions are occassionally titillating, but by excluding the offending images he has performed his role as a media gate keeper and protected us from our own ignoble tendencies.

  16. It appears that the hookers who get busted are an uglier, less representative sample of the wider population of hookers, if the

    Peoria craigslist erotic services section

    is any guide to the paid pussy for sale there.

  17. Especially

    her

    NSFW.

  18. I agree the police should not try to use mug shots as punishment. We also have the responsibility to keep in mind that others are innocent until proven guilty. We definitely have a problem when the day some one is arrested is front page news and the day he is aquitted is on page 30.

  19. prolefeed – will it play in Peoria? apparently so.

  20. Newsday is supposed to be Long Island’s newspaper, but Sag Harbor is in Suffolk County, way out on the South Fork.

    Since Nassau started its “Wall Of Shame,” they’ve been made to alter it:

    The accused drunken driver whose lawsuit against Nassau County led to the removal of the “Wall of Shame” from its Web site pleaded guilty yesterday to driving while impaired.

    Alexandra Bursac, 27, of Plainview, was sentenced to complete 35 hours of community service, attend a victim impact panel and pay $575 in fines. Her driver’s license will also be suspended for 90 days.

    Bursac successfully sued the county last fall, saying that Nassau officials were violating her constitutional rights by publicly “shaming” her on the wall before she had been convicted of any crime. – Newsday, 12 Feb 2009

    Kevin

    ex-Lawn Islander

  21. The government should be able to be sued for releasing these images as using the person’s likeness/image against their consent.

  22. How can an article on mugshots not mention Tom DeLay’s famous photo. You know, this one, the one where he put on a good suit and an American flag pin and smiled for the camera, thereby neutralizing the Democrat prosecutor’s effort to embarrass him? How can an article on mugshots not include that?

  23. Isn’t it interesting that, at the same time we have police agencies happily posting the mugshots of the accused-but-unconvicted, we also have numerous police agencies erroneously asserting that it’s illegal to photograph an officer in the act of performing his duties… and DEA agents and even local police undercover officers who are granted secrecy from photo publication?

  24. I doubt it would affect the business proposition, or even the shaming function, that much, to not post mugshots of people not yet convicted. While not everyone arrested is guilty, most are. Only having access to 12 million mugshots a year instead of 14 million won’t hurt anybody much.

  25. This may be a somewhat unfortunate side effect of freedom of information, but it’s certainly much better than letting the state arbitrarily decide which pieces of information we have a right to and which they can cover up. There are always people who will find something distasteful to do with information; that’s not a great reason to ban information though. Rather than exercise our minds finding ways information is being used distastefully and thinking of ways we could flex political muscle to put a stop to it, we should be thinking of how we can take the same information and use it to our own ends, or to do something we consider tasteful and positive.

    For instance, what if we take all these mug shots and filter them for the people who were falsely accused, falsely convicted, convicted of invasive, arbitrary nanny state crimes, were abused by the police during arrest, or given extraordinary punishments? Tell their stories and let the mug shots be a badge of honor for the arrestee a symbol of shame for the state – image after image of poor, miserable bastards subjected to humiliation for the pleasure of some overzealous authoritarian.

    This is what freedom of information in government is intended for – as a way for us to keep an eye on them and hold them accountable for their failures and abuses. If we fail to use it properly, but are content to sit back and whine when someone else uses it in ways we don’t particularly like, we just surrender more power to the government and encourage regressive policies.

  26. “Freedom for some is freedom for none.”

    I am remeinded of the picture of a retarded man convicted for ‘sexual touching.’ The poor SOB looked like a cartoon serial killer in a popular animation – mishapen head and all. In actual life, his ‘crime’ – if actually committed – was vague and likely due to his mental retardation; not a crime of malevolence so much as one of incomprehension.

    But thanks to the internet and unscrupulous promoters, he’s achieved fame as “that creepy rapist guy.”

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