Mug shots are a snapshot of the worst days in people’s lives. They are taken when a person has been charged with a crime, but has not been convicted; feed the voyeuristic impulses of the public even if they serve no purpose for the public.
No matter what happens next – whether a person is cleared, convicted, serves their sentence or has their criminal record expunged – many of these photos continue to circulate on the Internet. They can keep popping up for years, including in a job seeker’s searches, when they’re trying to build a secure life for themselves, or even in the news when they’re the victim of a crime. . They can make people the targets of racism, threats and public humiliation.
In recent years, there has been a trend away from publicly publishing passport photos in the media and by some law enforcement offices. Several news outlets have said they will no longer publish daily snapshot galleries or publish snapshots of people arrested but not yet convicted of a crime.
But this calculation has not yet reached one of the most widespread platforms in the world: Facebook.
The platform continues to allow law enforcement 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, individual users sometimes will – a network of amateur-run “local mugshot” pages has spread across the platform.
Often, the person pictured in the photo ID will be recognized, or even tagged, in the comments, leading to a buildup of their community members. The more people comment and react to the ID photo, the more the post will travel on the social media platform. Even if the individual is never convicted of a crime, there is no mechanism to have the image removed.
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment, but it often claims that it is a neutral platform rather than a publisher making editorial decisions about content on their site. In reality, Facebook moderates the content and the company has policies prohibiting certain content he considers too harmful. Although the app is inconsistent, Facebook claims to ban bullying, harassment, hate speech and messages containing personal or confidential information which could result in physical or financial harm.
Mug shots usually contain or invite all of the above. Pages run by people who grab mugshots from local sheriff’s department websites and repost them on Facebook are attracting tens of thousands of users who happily 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.
“She’s trash because someone else is raising her kids,” a member of Niagara County Mugshots – which has 24,000 followers – commented in a photo of a mug shot. “The dude didn’t give her the d she tried to take it, I’m guessing by the look on her face,” another member of the band commented in another mugshot. The Niagara County Mugshots page links to a merchandising page that sells T-shirts that say, “PUBLICLY SHAME YOUR LOCAL SEX OFFENDER.”
Even when members of the group do not recognize the individual under arrest, the comments usually turn into hateful vitriol. “Be sure to disinfect it before releasing it back into the wild,” posted one commenter. “Another Polish monster withdrawn from society. However, is justice really done? Locking up a Pole is like sending a dog to jail. They have no idea what they did wrong or why they are here,” another wrote.
“They produce content like any other content creator. It’s to get clicks, it’s to engage.
– Sarah Esther Lageson, Associate Professor at Rutgers, on Law Enforcement Facebook Pages
Even some law enforcement officials have acknowledged the damage caused by the dissemination of photo IDs online. A spokesperson for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office rented the Houston Chronicle for removing the photo galleries. The San Francisco Police Department announced in 2020 that it would no longer release mug shots without an immediate public safety reason. The following year, California state lawmakers banned law enforcement from posting mug shots on social media for people arrested on nonviolent charges.
But across the country, cops continue to release mug shots of the arrests they make in order to promote their work — at the expense of those who are charged but not convicted of a crime. The Lee County Sheriff’s Office in Florida regularly posts mug shots with salacious captions on its Facebook page, where it has 205,000 followers. The sheriff’s office calls the people it arrests “thugs” and “criminals.” The captions are written in a way that suggests the goal is to make viral ID photos go viral. The posts describe the alleged crimes in theatrical detail and include hashtags and jokes about the accused, including referring to a man arrested over Christmas as a “Grinch”.
Facebook users often respond by encouraging law enforcement and thanking them for keeping their community safe, even in cases where it’s not clear the arrested individual posed a great threat.
Facebook’s platform allows police departments to post their own content, rather than relying on the media to cover their arrests and posts, said Sarah Esther Lageson, an associate professor at Rutgers University who studies the growth of online crime data, photo IDs and criminal records.
“They control the narrative and use Facebook and photo IDs to show how busy they are. They produce content like any other content creator. It’s to get clicks, it’s to engage,” Lageson said. “And for what? Who bears the brunt of the problem there? That’s the person who is going to be publicly shamed.
The Lee County Sheriff’s Office does not seem to delete comments even when they are racist or threatening. Their mugshot posts include comments such as: “Send Pedro back to Haiti”, “I hope he gets what he deserves in prison, I hope he finds out what it’s like to ‘being raped by other inmates’, ‘Illegal?’ and “Will he get a slap on the wrist for being a minority, underprivileged?”
The Lee County Sheriff’s Office often releases photos of children, many of whom will never be convicted of a crime. Even those convicted later may be eligible for an expungement from their criminal record as adults.
Caitlyn Mumma, public information officer at the sheriff’s office, said they try to remove photos of individuals whose records are expunged, but not for people who have never been convicted of a crime. after their arrest “because it’s still a public record even if the charges become dropped.”
Last year, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office released a mugshot of a 12-year-old boy accused of making violent threats on social media, with a caption stating the home address of the boy. The image of the child, captured on what was probably one of the worst days of his life, has been shared 27,000 times and has 45,000 comments. Several of the commenters took it upon themselves to diagnose the child with serious mental illnesses, citing the lack of tears in the mugshot.
The 12-year-old boy’s parents could not be reached for comment, but Lageson has done extensive research into how people are reacting to their photo ID explosion online. “They are totally overwhelmed. And even if they feel like it’s a violation 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 circumstance that might cause others to discover the photo ID. “Online dating, volunteering at schools, churches, applying for promotions, applying for more secure or stable housing or employment – these are all real things people have told me that ‘they had stopped doing it because of it,’ Lageson said. “And of course it’s all of those things that make us safer, because those are all factors that prevent crime.”
In 2020, Facebook launched a call for proposals from academics seeking funding for research related to digital privacy. Lageson submitted a proposal that included creating a process for people to request that their photo ID be removed from the platform, particularly if their record had been erased.
Lageson did not receive the grant.