Po­lice Face­book posts un­der fire

Of­fi­cers’ flip­pant up­dates go too far, civil-rights groups say

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - DENISE LAVOIE

BOS­TON — A driver mows down six mail­boxes, slurs her words and tells po­lice she has a lizard in her bra. Throw in a wise­crack­ing po­lice of­fi­cer, and what do you get? A flip­pant post on Face­book, along with pho­tos of the woman, and of course, her lizard.

Not ev­ery­one is amused. Po­lice de­part­ments are in­creas­ingly us­ing Face­book to in­form their com­mu­ni­ties about what they’re do­ing and who they’re ar­rest­ing. Some add a lit­tle hu­mor to the mix. But civil-rights ad­vo­cates say post­ing mugshots and writ­ten, pe­jo­ra­tive de­scrip­tions of sus­pects amounts to public sham­ing of peo­ple who have not yet been con­victed.

“It makes them the butt of a joke on what for many peo­ple is prob­a­bly their worst day,” said Ar­isha Hatch, cam­paign di­rec­tor of Color of Change, a civil-rights ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion that re­cently got Philadel­phia po­lice to stop post­ing mugshots on its Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Face­book page.

“The im­pact of hav­ing a mugshot posted on so­cial me­dia for all to see can be in­cred­i­bly dam­ag­ing for folks who are par­ents, for folks who have jobs, for folks who have lives they have to come back to,” she said.

In Taun­ton, a city of 57,000 about 40 miles south of Bos­ton, the Po­lice Depart­ment’s post about the woman with a lizard in her bra was shared around Face­book and got heavy news cov­er­age.

Lt. Paul Rod­er­ick wrote that Amy Re­bello-McCarthy hit mail­boxes, send­ing some air­borne, be­fore her car left the road, tore up a lawn and came to rest among trees. When po­lice ar­rived, she asked them to call a tow truck so she and a male com­pan­ion “could be on their way,” Rod­er­ick wrote.

“Sorry Amy, we can’t move the car right now. If we do, what will you use to hold your­self up?” he wrote.

Rod­er­ick de­scribed how she told po­lice she had a lizard.

“Where does one hold a Bearded Dragon Lizard while driv­ing you ask? An­swer: In their brassiere of course!!”

Many com­menters praised po­lice. “Great job (get­ting drunks off the road and en­ter­tain­ing us),” one woman wrote.

But oth­ers said the tone was in­ap­pro­pri­ate.

“Hey Taun­ton Po­lice Depart­ment … Your holier than thou at­ti­tude is part of the rea­son why peo­ple don’t like/don’t re­spect po­lice,” one man wrote.

Re­bello-McCarthy, who has pleaded in­no­cent to drunken driv­ing and other charges, did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

Po­lice have tra­di­tion­ally made mugshots and de­tails on sus­pects avail­able to jour­nal­ists for pub­li­ca­tion. But jour­nal­ists, for the most part, se­lec­tively choose to write sto­ries and use mugshots based on the sever­ity or un­usual na­ture of the crime. Many crimes get no cov­er­age.

Rod­er­ick said every­thing he wrote in the post­ing about Re­bello-McCarthy was true.

“I guess I don’t see a prob­lem with it,” he said in an in­ter­view.

“Can you go too far? I guess you could. I don’t think I did. I’m just try­ing to report what’s hap­pen­ing.”

Still, Rod­er­ick did get a mild rep­ri­mand from the po­lice chief.

“He ba­si­cally said, ‘Tone it down a lit­tle bit,’” Rod­er­ick said.

Jaleel Bussey, 24, of Philadel­phia, said he nearly got kicked out of a cos­me­tol­ogy school when in­struc­tors saw his mugshot on Face­book. Bussey was charged in 2016 af­ter drugs were found dur­ing a po­lice search of a house he was vis­it­ing to style a client’s hair.

Most of the charges were dis­missed be­fore trial; he was ac­quit­ted of the fi­nal charge, ac­cord­ing to the Philadel­phia public de­fender’s of­fice.

Bussey said he was al­lowed to con­tinue school af­ter ex­plain­ing that he did not have any drugs and that the charges had been dropped. He felt hu­mil­i­ated, he said, when his fam­ily and teach­ers saw his mugshot.

“I was an­gry at the time,” he said. “I was found not guilty. They’re just putting peo­ple’s faces up there like it’s OK.”

In Ma­ri­etta, Ga., po­lice poked fun at a man sus­pected of shoplift­ing from a pawn shop.

“Sir, you must have for­got that you gave the clerk your driver’s li­cense with ALL of your per­sonal in­for­ma­tion as well as pro­vid­ing him with your fin­ger­print when com­plet­ing the pawn ticket be­fore you stole from him which, by the way was also all on cam­era. … When you make it this easy it takes all the fun out of chas­ing bad guys!” po­lice wrote in De­cem­ber.

In some com­mu­ni­ties, post­ing mugshots and glib write-ups has cre­ated a back­lash.

In South Burling­ton, Vt., Po­lice Chief Trevor Whip­ple was in fa­vor of post­ing mugshots at first, but then he started notic­ing dis­parag­ing com­ments about every­thing from sus­pects’ hair­styles to their in­tel­li­gence. The depart­ment stopped the prac­tice af­ter about a year.

“Do we want to use our Face­book page to shame peo­ple?” Whip­ple said.

“Le­gally, there’s no prob­lem — all mugshots are public — but the ques­tion be­came, ‘Is this what we want to do?’”

AP/STEPHAN SAVOIA

Lt. Paul Rod­er­ick sits at his desk at po­lice head­quar­ters in Taun­ton, Mass., last week. Po­lice de­part­ments are in­creas­ingly us­ing Face­book to in­form their com­mu­ni­ties about what they’re do­ing and who they’ve been ar­rest­ing.

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