Opinion

opinion | jennifer graham

Booking photos don’t expire, but they should

Christopher Hicks’s booking photo was distributed by Transit Police on the agency’s website and Twitter feed.
Christopher Hicks’s booking photo was distributed by Transit Police on the agency’s website and Twitter feed.

I don’t know Christopher Hicks, and I’m fine with that — more than fine, really, having seen the angry, sneering mugshot released by the MBTA police after he was arrested for allegedly harassing women and assaulting a man on the Red Line recently.

Like most people who have faced the camera in police custody, Hicks will get even madder when he realizes that this photo will be public for a while, possibly forever, even if he is exonerated — unless he cares to pay the thousands of dollars that might get it removed from websites that make money off booking photographs. And finds a way to disable a country’s screengrabs.

In this conundrum, Hicks discovers the truth of what ethicist Michael Josephson says: People judge us by our last worst act even as we judge ourselves by our noblest deeds and best intentions. Unfortunately, cameras can’t document radiant intentions nearly as well as they do the worst moments of our lives, and police mugshots are like hammertoes: Without costly and onerous intervention, they’ll dog you forever. Just ask Henry Louis Gates Jr., whose front-and-side images still show up on Google five years after charges of disorderly conduct at his Cambridge home were dismissed.

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As a world-renowned scholar, Professor Gates is a public figure and, as such, must endure potentially defamatory salvos more than the common man. Moreover, his portfolio of images in tuxedos and suits drives his mugshots to Google’s fifth row. Christopher Hicks’s only hope for future oblivion is a preponderance of others named Christopher Hicks who have also been arrested. I count 12, a good foundation for a class-action lawsuit against police departments, who are ultimately to blame.

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With the possible exception of pawn shops, the dissemination of police booking shots — on the Internet and in newspaper form — is one of the seediest businesses around, and it is worrisome that the front line of distribution, where it all begins, is law enforcement. Mugshots are public record with no restrictions in Massachusetts, as they are in most states. But the ease with which lives can be ruined has increased exponentially with the expansion of the Internet, and many states are examining their practices, cracking down on companies that publish the pictures and then require payment for removal.

But extortion is only part of the problem. Equally troubling is the trafficking in humiliation, the gleeful spread of teary images gleaned from girls arrested for underage drinking or men driving with a suspended license. They’re on Pinterest and Facebook, and on the MBTA police blog, where the disclaimer that “all defendants are presumed innocent” does nothing to mitigate the pre-trial flogging that takes place with the publication of booking photos with attendant commentary that is sometimes sardonic.

Even for uses that purport to do good — like a compilation showing the premature aging of drug users over time — their widespread release is disturbing. The images should serve one purpose only: keeping the citizenry safe.

Mugshots are as old as photography itself; the practice of cataloguing the images of people accused of a crime began in the 1850s. They can, at times, be helpful to defendants for showing their physical condition at the time of arrest or to prevent the wrong man from being incarcerated for another’s crime. But in the digital age, the primary outcome is far less noble. “Even people who are innocent are presumed guilty when it comes to Internet searches,” said Robert Shavell, co-founder of Abine, an online privacy company based in Boston.

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Unfortunately, when it comes to mugshots, Shavell told me, there’s little that can be done in the United States or even in Europe, which recently passed a marginally effective “right-to-be-forgotten” law.

“On a Google search, they can come up high [in search results] if you don’t have a lot of other content,” he said. And he doesn’t recommend that people pay to have a mugshot deleted. It will soon just appear on another site with another price tag.

States including California, Oregon, and Georgia have passed laws regulating the use of mugshots. PayPal, American Express, and other credit card companies have said that they will not work with businesses that traffic in mugshots.

Yet the stream of embarrassment is best cut off where it originates. Credit-reporting agencies must delete negative information about consumers after seven years. It seems reasonable that law enforcement agencies should employ a purge date, too. At the very least, some restraint is in order. Only releasing the photographs of those charged with felonies, for example, or keeping them internal but for exceptional cases.

Ironically enough, that is the policy of the Cambridge Police Department, which retains booking shots in its archives but rarely makes them public. Gates was an exception. His “teachable moment” may benefit from visuals, however traumatic.

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Because, for many people arrested but not convicted, a booking photo is little more than an institutional mugging, a last worst act preserved for perpetuity. Not to keep us safe, but to keep us entertained.

Jennifer Graham writes regularly for The Globe. On Twitter, she’s @grahamtoday.