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Say Cheese



A school picture of my fifth grade daughter is on my refrigerator, secured with a magnet. On top of that is a little slip of paper with a string of numbers on it. I turned the wallet-sized photo into a mug shot.

I did it as a joke, without thinking. With the general inertia that controls my house, it will probably stay there until we get a new fridge.

Do news sites that post people's mugshots do so with as little thought? Is it just as harmless? That's what Jonathan Webster wondered when he started a Twitter thread on March 19 at @LCOutpost, which is the Twitter account for the Lost Coast Outpost, the online news site owned by Lost Coast Communications.

Webster responded to LoCO's posting of a Eureka police press release about the arrest of a man suspected of driving while intoxicated, found with a loaded .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol in the front seat and a meth pipe.

Webster tweeted: "cool how you'll post embarrassing mugshots of ppl busted for weed across the country but not this guy after rolling by my house."

What followed was a 44-post Socratic dialogue between Webster and LoCO over the ethics of posting police mugshots of people arrested but not yet convicted.

LoCO replied that it would have posted the guy's mug if it had the picture. Webster accused the Outpost of a lack of ethics, pointing out that mugshots are taken prior to conviction. LoCO argued that publishing a mug is no different than reporting the name of someone arrested. Webster said that in a small town, people might recognize you by a photo when they won't know you by name. LoCO said, try applying for a job; it is the mention of your name in a police report that will trip you up, not your photo. It is more dangerous, LoCO said, for police to be able to arrest individuals without anyone knowing.

The bigger issue might be the publishing of police press releases verbatim. The Times-Standard has done that for years, only under the byline of staff reports. Police agencies selectively issue press releases and mugshots. That's the complaint Webster started with.

Over the phone, Lost Coast Outpost Editor Hank Sims said he compares the crimes the police issue releases on with the daily bookings lists, and the one consistent factor is that the press releases match the major crimes. When the crime is big, police or the sheriff's office send out a release with mug shots. Instead of complaining about selective reporting on the part of the media, Sims said, people should push for complete and consistent release of information. Agencies in an increasing number of counties, including Mendocino, post the mugshots from all arrests. He's been working toward total coverage of the criminal justice system from the time of a 911 call to a dismissal, acquittal or conviction. He wants people to be able to track every crime and arrest through its resolution.

I feel uncomfortable about the posting of mugshots. But the first stage in the creation of a police state involves secret arrests, detentions and disappearances. What's worse? That you get arrested for something you didn't do and the whole world sees it and you have to explain it later to a potential employer? Or you get arrested and detained for something you didn't do and nobody ever knows?

Now, is it worse to have your photo up than to have your name mentioned? If your photo goes up, so does your name, in most cases. But for the sake of argument, let's tackle it as an either/or problem.

Most people are terrible with faces. I often think I recognize someone, only to discover it is someone else entirely. Or more often, I recognize someone but I can't figure out if I know that person from one of my classes, my kid's school, her dentist's office or the fish counter at Murphy's market. I also find that people who know me often don't recognize me. (Probably, they are just avoiding me.)

Still, I share Webster's concerns. If you get arrested, you don't have a right to privacy in the matter. But Internet search algorithms can keep a news item fresh by making it pop up at the top of a search for years. Time gets looped. That one transgression — a drunk in public maybe — will become the first and most prominent thing someone finds when they Google you. And that's not fair.

In an email, Sims said LoCO won't take photos down once they get posted but he will "happily" update the site with more info; if someone has been exonerated, for example. He said there are two exceptions to that rule: He will take down photos of someone if it depicts the wrong person. And he has taken down photos of runaway children once they have been found.

Some people argue that sites like LoCO publish mugshots for entertainment value. I'm not sure that I would devalue transparency just because some people find certain types of info entertaining.  

There are a slew of websites that offer to scrub your reputation by making photos or information about you hard to find. There are others that post mugshots only so they can charge people as much as $1,000 a pop for the removal. "That's as sleazy as it gets," Sims wrote.

There has been so much backlash to that kind of extortion that several states have banned it. The result is that many more sites are following LoCO's practice — the mugshots don't come down, ever. Some have called this Internet imprisonment.

In Utah several years ago, one police agency tried to copyright the photos. In Michigan, a fight last year between the Detroit Free Press and the U.S. Marshals service for access to mugshots is currently before the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which could alter long-standing precedents that favor public access.

One compromise is giving people the ability to limit information that shows up in identity searches. In Europe, individuals have the right to have personal information removed from Internet searches. The information or images don't disappear from the web, but finding them becomes more difficult. Google has a process for search engine removal in Europe, but it only applies to searches done from within Europe. You can do the same search from the U.S. and get the full results. I think if this practice were universal — if people could feel comfortable knowing that a mugshot won't show up on a casual search — people and their governments would be less eager to tinker with laws about public records.

Meanwhile, the photo of my kid greets me each day through the old technology of magnetization. It serves as a reminder of what might happen if I fail as a parent. Or maybe it tells me to ease up a little. The last thing I want is for her to rebel against my tyrannical rule and end up in a life of crime.

Editor's Note: In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that Jonathan Webster is a graphic artist for the Journal.

Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University. She has yet to be arrested for any crime.

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