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On the proper use of police mugshots


Do we have the right to see Donald Trump’s mugshot? Do we have the right to see anybody’s mugshot if they haven’t had their day in court yet?

The second question came up during this year’s Sunshine Week event, which featured an outstanding panel of local journalists talking about crime reporting. The consensus was that, while we all have the right to view any public document, the media also has a responsibility as to what it publishes.

Bob Moore, former editor of the El Paso Times who is now heading El Paso Matters, noted that it is often the police who decide which mug shots get sent to and used by the media.

That was certainly true with my experience in Las Cruces, and not just with mugshots. Our reporting on the small, daily crimes was almost entirely dependent on press releases that the police departments sent us. And, our stories almost never included the defendant’s side. Running a mugshot with the story only made it worse.

Mugshots have proven to be a marvelous source of public humiliation for a handful of pompous jerks in desperate need of a good shaming, but that’s not really what they’re for. They are intended to be a tool to help police identify criminals. But, like fingerprints, they’re starting to feel like primitive tools in an era of DNA testing and facial-recognition technology.

My first hard news job was in Colorado, as the regional correspondent for the Pueblo Chieftain in Canon City. Each morning I would stop by the police station and sheriff’s department to go through the reports from the night before. I would often bump into reporters from the local newspaper and radio station doing the same thing. We would all make our own editorial decisions as to what deserved to be covered.

I’m not sure when that got outsourced to the police public information officer, but I am sure that the consequences now are much greater than they were then.

Like every judgment call, sometimes I got it wrong. But the consequences then were that somebody would be embarrassed for a few days, and it would go away. Now, nothing ever goes away.

I was caught off guard the first time someone called and asked that we take down an online posting of a crime report from several years ago, explaining that it was preventing him from finding work and housing. Until that phone call, I hadn’t even considered the new consequences of what we had always done.

In hindsight, I think we made the wrong decision, reasoning that if we took down one post we would have to take them all down. That’s exactly what we should have done.

As for the former president, my understanding is that mugshots are typically not released for defendants in New York who are facing the same charges he is. If that’s true, his probably shouldn’t be released either. The only purpose for a mugshot would be public humiliation. Police officers know what he looks like.

But I’m not going to lie … it would bring a small moment of joy.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com.