SFPD blasts alleged drug dealers online as critics decry ‘public shaming’

After walking free from jail with no charges filed against him, a man went to work the next day only to learn from his boss that San Francisco police had published his mug shot on the internet. The revelation devastated him.

“It caused him a lot of distress,” said Hong Le, an attorney with Bay Area Legal Aid who requested anonymity for her client. “I think he was concerned about who else had seen the mug shot and what people’s perceptions of him would be.”

The man is among dozens of people whose names and booking photos have been posted to the Twitter account of the Tenderloin Police Station without a conviction or in some cases criminal charges. Most of the suspects were arrested in connection with nonviolent crimes like drug dealing.

Tenderloin Police Station started publicizing the arrests on Twitter in February, often sharing the mug shots alongside pictures of cash and bindles of heroin, methamphetamines and cocaine.

Court records show close to half of the more than 80 suspects identified faced new charges as a result of their arrest, but at least five have not been charged at all. Others had their probation revoked or were transferred out of county.

“This raises huge problems in terms of fairness and due process,” said Public Defender Jeff Adachi. “What this does is essentially criminalizes a person for life for an arrest.”

Police Capt. Carl Fabbri said the posts offer community members an “inside look” into police work.

“The Tenderloin community has been victimized by drug dealers for decades,” Fabbri said in an email. “With few exceptions, the feedback we receive from this community overwhelmingly supports and greatly appreciates the fact we are transparent about who we are arresting, where, and for what charges.”

Micaela Davis, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Northern California, said the tweets essentially amount to “public shaming” before due process.

“Having someone’s mug shot online before someone has even been charged with a crime much yet convicted of a crime is extraordinarily problematic,” Davis said.

Sarah Lageson, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said booking photos attach an online stigma to a suspect that can have a “chilling effect” on their future access to jobs and housing.

“Photos have this enduring value that we used to not worry about so much,” Lageson said. “I talk to people who no longer go to church, volunteer, let their kids talk to other kids because they are afraid their parents will Google them.”

When asked whether he shared concerns about preventing access to jobs and housing, Fabbri said “that’s certainly not our intention.”

Fabbri noted that some law enforcement agencies post booking photos for every arrest. He said SFPD “must” release certain information about suspects, citing a department policy on releasing police reports to comply with public records laws.

However, the policy does not require SFPD to post booking photos on Twitter.

Traditionally, journalists in San Francisco have gauged the newsworthiness of a particular crime and decided whether to publish a booking photo. But social media has made it easier for police to choose which suspects have their information posted on the internet.

Some Tenderloin residents who support police clearing the streets of drug dealing questioned the practice. Neighborhood advocate David Elliott Lewis criticized San Francisco for treating the Tenderloin like a drug “containment zone” and wants to see the dealers stop “selling with impunity.”

“But I think posting their faces on Twitter is ineffective,” Lewis said. “I doubt it makes any difference.”

Lewis said SFPD would be better off posting the booking photos on the wall outside Tenderloin Police Station.

“I’m not against the Twitter disclosures of dealers, but it doesn’t reach out to the Tenderloin,” Lewis said. “Half the residents don’t even email. I would say more than half have cell phones, but just many don’t internet access.”

Kevin Stull, who lived in the Tenderloin for 15 years until four months ago, had not seen the Twitter account, but said “it is a good idea to let the public know who” the suspected drug dealers are.

“I just hope this doesn’t add to the problem,” said Stull, who works for a Safe Passage program that guides children to school through the Tenderloin. Stull said the program has unofficial agreements with dealers to keep off the streets when kids are walking to and from school and he worried that exposing a dealer’s arrest on Twitter could motivate a rival dealer to take their territory.

Karen Taylor, a Tenderloin resident with the Central City SRO Collaborative who admitted she did not like the police, said the “only purpose” of the tweets were to harass people who were not yet convicted of a crime.

“I think they should try policing instead,” Taylor said. “I think it’s lazy.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Micaela Davis’ first name.

Michael Barba
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Michael Barba

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