(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SF police to limit release of mugshots pre-conviction

New guidelines would broadly restrict sharing of booking photos

San Francisco police plan to stop posting mugshots online except in certain cases after facing concerns that the practice reinforces racial stereotypes and stigmatizes people who have not been convicted of a crime.

Police Chief Bill Scott has drafted a department notice to prevent officers from releasing a booking photo pre-conviction unless doing so would warn the public of “imminent danger” or help locate a person.

Scott moved forward with the proposal amid concerns about the practice from critics like Police Commissioner John Hamasaki, who called for the creation of a working group to address the issue back in February.

Hamasaki said Monday that black and brown people in disadvantaged communities, not “DUI suspects in the Marina,” are the ones being “publicly shamed” by having their mugshots posted in the news or on social media.

“The end result is racial stereotypes are reinforced to the public and the arrestee, who may not even end up charged with a crime, will lose their employment prospects and face shame and stigma in the community,” Hamasaki said.

While law enforcement agencies nationwide have released booking photos for decades, the practice has drawn more scrutiny since police began posting mugshots online and shady websites began charging people to remove them.

Since early 2018, Tenderloin Police Station has gained social media fame by routinely posting booking photos of suspected drug dealers and other low-level offenders. The account has more than 12,000 followers as of Monday.

The San Francisco Examiner reviewed dozens of posts on the account in April 2018 and found that around half of those pictured faced new charges. Others had their probation revoked, while at least five were not charged at all.

At the time, Capt. Carl Fabbri argued that the booking photos increased transparency by offering an “inside look” into police work. He said he did not intend to harm the housing or employment prospects of those pictured.

The proposal from Scott recognizes that “regulating the release of booking photos can help prevent the potentially negative outcome for individuals who are presumed innocent and subsequently not charged or convicted.”

It also says that “a thoughtful process” for releasing booking photos may “help mitigate or avoid perpetuating negative stereotypes which can contribute to implicit and explicit bias in policing and by community members.”

While the department notice only needs the approval of the chief, Scott plans to present the draft to the Police Commission on Wednesday. He is also scheduled to discuss the proposal at a public forum Tuesday.

The proposal has the support of Police Commission Vice President Damali Taylor. She said releasing mugshots “can be a dangerous practice that ends up perpetuating the stereotype that minorities are more likely to commit crimes.”

She also questioned the value of “educating the public that someone is a drug dealer before they have been convicted of being a drug dealer.”

“Is that a high priority?” Taylor said. “What are we doing this for?”

Among those who advocated for the change is Public Defender Manohar Raju. He said posting booking photos after an arrest “interferes with the constitutional right we all have to a fair trial.”

“And because we live in an age where an image posted online lasts forever, publishing booking photos this way causes irreparable harm—including to many who are never convicted,” Raju said.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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