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After catching an escaped murderer in Pennsylvania, officers took a photo with him. Experts say it was inappropriate.

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Police experts said the moment of celebration after the grueling 14 days of searching for the armed suspect was inappropriate and dehumanizing.

Danelo Souza Cavalcante is taken into custody at the Pennsylvania State Police barracks in Avondale, Pa., Wednesday, September 13, 2023. Pennsylvania State Police via AP

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A group photo of about two dozen officers in tactical gear posing with escaped murderer Danelo Cavalcante minutes after his capture Wednesday in southeastern Pennsylvania drew criticism from reform advocates police and some members of the public.

The photo moment was captured by a KYW-TV news helicopter. It showed federal officers and agents gathered in a semi-circle around the handcuffed escapee for a photo before loading him into an armored vehicle.

Police experts said the moment of celebration after the grueling 14 days of searching for the armed suspect was inappropriate and dehumanizing. But at least one manager of the operation said it didn’t bother him.

  • The police pass in front of a roadblock.

    Escaped murderer Danelo Cavalcante captured, Pennsylvania police say

Asked about the criticism during a news conference Wednesday, Pennsylvania State Police Lt. Col. George Bivens focused on the officer’s hard work under difficult circumstances.

“They take pride in their work,” Bivens said. “The fact that they took a photo of him in custody doesn’t bother me at all.”

Police experts said the practice of taking photos, especially after a successful arrest, is not uncommon but has become more prevalent with the advent of smartphones. While many law enforcement agencies have attempted to create guidelines of conduct for social media use, including prohibiting posting on personal pages while wearing a uniform or performing on-duty activities , experts say these rules do not exist everywhere and are inconsistent.

“There are no standards or uniformity in these policies. What we have here is a galvanizing act that could start a debate,” said Adam Scott Wandt, associate professor of public policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“From a police ethics standpoint, a police officer taking a photo on the street and posting it on social media or doing so in celebration or retaliation is not acceptable,” Wandt said. “As a lawyer, this is also a problem of proof that is created. It is a dangerous practice for a police officer to create evidence on the spot and not properly turn it over to the prosecutor.”

The Pennsylvania State Police has a conduct policy covering the use of social media that prohibits the posting or transmission of images of State Police investigations or operations, or content depicting the uniform, badge or other official department equipment without authorization. But it’s unclear whether Wednesday’s photo would be covered by that policy and a message left with a state police spokesperson was not immediately returned.

Photos of Cavalcante immediately after his arrest, with the police dog cornering him, circulated widely on social media Wednesday in the hours after the arrest was announced. The photos did not contain any information about who took them, but they were taken inside the secure perimeter where only law enforcement officers were allowed.

The Associated Press left messages seeking comment on the posed photo from other agencies involved in the search, including the U.S. Marshals Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Drug Enforcement Administration. A special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said ATF agents were not involved in the arrest and were not involved in the posed photograph.

In recent years, several police officers across the country have been disciplined or fired for taking cellphone photos of suspects or during police operations, including one Memphis police officer who was fired and charged with murder in the fatal stabbing of Tire Nichols in January. In documents submitted to request that former officer Demetrius Haley be decertified as a police officer, it was revealed that he took at least two photos of Nichols after the beating and texted them to at least five other people, contrary to department policy.

For Niles R. Wilson, senior director of law enforcement initiatives at the Center for Policing Equity and a retired police captain in Newark, New Jersey, these celebratory photos are reminiscent of photos taken during the civil rights era showing the police brutalizing people in order to suppress them.

“This is not appropriate. It’s not ethical. It’s truly inhumane,” Wilson said. “I wish I could give you a reason why this is happening. From my experience in law enforcement, I know how overexcited the police can be, but that is no excuse to mistreat someone.”

Leonard Sipes, who worked for 35 years in public affairs and communications for federal and state law enforcement, and is also a former officer, said he understands the tendency to celebrate after dangerous and grueling conditions of attempting to recapture someone who was armed and dangerous.

“The police had nothing to do with the distribution of the photo. It was made available by a news source,” Sipes said. “But posing with the suspect is questionable. If I were there as a public affairs officer representing a law enforcement agency, I would have discouraged him.


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