To Ensure Justice, Police Departments and Local News Must Stop Publicly Shaming

No one wants their photo taken and shared around the internet on the worst day of their life, yet Vermont police departments, with the assistance of local Vermont media, do just that by publishing the mugshots of arrestees.

It is good for police departments to share data and news of the work they are doing and for the press to keep citizens informed. Too often however, departments publish official press releases with the photographs of arrested individuals and a story, often reprinted by local media, that solidifies a narrative of criminality that will follow and tar these individuals forever. No matter the intent, the impact is one of public shaming and ostracizing.

Several years ago leaders in South Burlington recognized the harms of public shaming. Then-Chief Whipple decided to end his department’s practice of publishing mugshots on social media. He noted that there was often “a flurry of inappropriate comments,” and that the pictures could prevent a person from successfully completing rehabilitation and reintegrating into the community.

Published mugshots make it harder for our criminal justice system to successfully function. Innocent Vermonters, wrongfully or mistakenly arrested, have their lives and reputations ruined. For those who are charged with crimes they committed, shared mugshots make it more difficult for people to see themselves as having value and potential, all while making it harder for them to secure stable employment and housing, increasing the likelihood that recidivism will occur. Some companies, recognizing how much damage mugshots can cause, have even begun to extort arrestees, demanding payment to remove mugshots from their companies’ websites.

The police and press can inform the public without public shaming, creating policies that ensure equal treatment for all parties. Ideally, any policy would address social media publications and cover the following subjects at a minimum:

  • When (if ever) will pictures of arrested and/or convicted people be published, and how long will they remain up for.
  • What will be done if this arrested or convicted person is found innocent or is charged with a lesser crime.
  • How (and if) comment sections will be monitored.
  • If social media posts will be shareable.

Surprisingly, very few organizations in the state of Vermont have written policies on mugshots or other forms of public shaming. All of our police departments and our press could take a positive step, exemplifying Vermont values of compassion and justice, by developing policies that prevent public shaming and contribute to building stronger Vermont communities through rehabilitation and restorative justice.