When a woman allegedly struck six separate mailboxes before crashing onto a lawn and coming to rest among some trees, local police were on the case. When she turned out to have a live lizard inside her bra, they were amused. They posted a flippant account of the arrest on the departmental Facebook page.
Many people were highly amused. “Great job (getting drunks off the road and entertaining us),” wrote one of the department’s followers.
Not everyone finds this funny, however. In fact, civil rights activists find it quite worrisome. After all, aren’t we all entitled to be considered innocent until proven guilty? If the police write humorous but pejorative accounts of arrests, aren’t they robbing potentially innocent people of their dignity?
It might be even worse than that. One man told the Associated Press that he was kicked out of cosmetology school because instructors saw his mug shot on a police Facebook account. He turned out to be a bystander to the drug crime he was accused of. Most of the charges were dropped before trial, and he was acquitted of the remaining one.
Nevertheless, he was humiliated when his friends, family and teachers saw that he was accused of drug involvement, and he nearly lost out on his education.
Is pre-conviction shaming what we want to see our police doing?
Mug shots are generally part of the public record, so posting them online probably isn’t illegal. It’s unclear whether the humorous commentary by police might violate a defendant’s right to be considered innocent.
On the other hand, the commentaries might reveal evidence, such as inconsistencies in a police officer’s statements, and that could come up at trial. Also, they might bias the public against a defendant in a way that isn’t fair.
Or they might bias the public against police. One man wrote into his local department, “Your holier than thou attitude is part of the reason why people don’t like/don’t respect police.”
In one jurisdiction, the police were simply posting mug shots of arrestees when they noticed that internet trolls were becoming a problem. They noticed disparaging comments about suspects’ hairstyles, intelligence and the like. They decided to stop posting the mug shots.
What do you think? When police departments make comedic remarks at the expense of suspects who haven’t had their day in court, is it just innocent fun? Or does it have more serious implications for our justice system?