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.

Who Does Chief del Pozo Serve and Protect?

Del Pozo has a history of acting as both a police chief and a judge, inserting himself into private citizens’ and other officials’ jurisdiction through the media and social media, while also erratically choosing if, when, and how much, public information will be shared. The recent police altercation with Burlington 16-year-old Phin Brown is especially telling of the Chief’s impulsiveness and need to stay in the limelight, while also highlighting the trouble he has separating his personal feelings from his professional work. Del Pozo’s social media presence revolves not around transparency, justice, or community policing, but rather around boosting and protecting his personal profile and narrative.

Del Pozo’s checkered social media presence goes back to at least the summer of 2017, when former Burlington City Councilor Bedrosian brought a complaint to the city council regarding inappropriate messaging from del Pozo. The concerns eventually even made its way into Seven Days, but his behavior has never corrected.

The confusion around del Pozo’s social media presence is that his public persona is so intertwined with the Burlington Police Department’s social media that it’s often hard to tell where del Pozo begins and the department ends. He seems to decide whether he is representing himself or the department in any given situation not based on any consistent or transparent system, but rather by what will serve him best.

Phin Brown’s complaint against Burlington police officers, and del Pozo’s reaction to that complaint, highlight this increasingly problematic dynamic. It’s not just del Pozo’s unwillingness to even entertain meaningful oversight over himself or his department, but his total inability, while expecting everyone else involved in the criminal justice system, to accept personal responsibility and do reparative work.

In fact del Pozo’s inability to take responsibility was front and center during Phin Brown’s media storm. Not only did del Pozo release private information about a minor, but according to VTDigger, he also stated,

“I don’t have the authority or role of analyzing or intervening or opinion-ing on Secret Service operations,” del Pozo said. “I urge people to ask the Secret Service for an account of what they’ve done and reconcile it with the concerns of the citizen.”

Yet when it serves del Pozo’s narrative, he has no problem commenting on other law enforcement and their operations. For example,

On top of this, Del Pozo seems to believe in transparency only when he can control both the narrative and outcome, which is why he repeatedly aired private information about Phin Brown, a minor. More examples include:

In each instance del Pozo made a unilateral choice not connected to department values, but rather to his public persona and personal feelings. This behavior is concerning because laws and policies should be applied equally and evenly, democratically overseen by a group of elected citizens, not decided by a single person who has a personal stake and very public reputation in each outcome. We need a police chief who is a public servant invested in the entire community, not a chief who acts more like a politician always looking for positive press and public accolades.

Who does Chief del Pozo protect and serve? Himself.