For more than a century, police departments and news organizations have worked together to disseminate photos of people after their arrest, often bleary-eyed and despondent, sometimes defiant and smiling.
It’s a practice as old as the mug shot itself: publicizing an unflattering close-up of a person’s face and profile, taken at one of the worst possible moments.
And in some police departments and newsrooms across the country, it may be on its way out.
William Scott, the San Francisco police chief, announced on Wednesday that his department would no longer release mug shots of people who had been arrested unless there was an immediate public safety reason to do so.
“This policy emerges from compelling research suggesting that the widespread publication of police booking photos in the news and on social media creates an illusory correlation for viewers that fosters racial bias and vastly overstates the propensity of Black and brown men to engage in criminal behavior,” Chief Scott said in a statement.
Many newsrooms have already started removing mug shot galleries, citing the same reasoning.
Last month, dozens of outlets once owned by the newspaper chain GateHouse Media said they would stop using slide shows of mug shots that were not part of a news article. Those sites are now run under the banner of Gannett, which merged last year with GateHouse and had already removed mug shot galleries from its sites, said Amalie Nash, USA Today Network vice president for local news and audience development.
“Mug shot galleries presented without context may feed into negative stereotypes and, in our editorial judgment, are of limited news value,” Gannett has stated.
In 2018, the San Francisco police began releasing booking photos of people who had been arrested on drug-related charges as a way to show the public they were dealing aggressively with crime, said Jennifer L. Eberhardt, a psychology professor at Stanford University who has studied the correlation between the public’s perception of crime and images of Black people.
But those photos disproportionately represented Black and Latino people, who make up a minority of the city’s population, she said.
“If the only faces you’re seeing are of Black and Latino people, it can create this illusion that most Black and Latino people are committing the crimes,” said Professor Eberhardt, who was among the academics, reporters and criminal justice reform supporters with whom Chief Scott consulted before changing his department’s mug shot policy.
She added, “You fear the group, not the individual.”
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