Wired recently published an article titled “Police Departments Need to Stop Posting Mugshots on Twitter.” The URL to the page is more telling of the contents of that article, reading “https://www.wired.com/story/opinion-police-should-stop-doxxing-protestors/”
“Doxxing” is to tech journalism what “zoom-and-enhance” is to crime tv shows. When you see it, you know that the writer probably doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
For instance, the authors of this article say the following:
“At its most basic, doxxing is the release of people’s names, phone numbers, social media accounts, addresses, and places of work—information made findable and shareable thanks to the internet—in order to intimidate victims.”
This simply isn’t true.
A quick glance at Wikipedia reveals that Doxxing “is the Internet-based practice of researching and broadcasting private or identifiable information (especially personally identifiable information) about an individual or organization.” The term dates back to the 90s: “Hackers operating outside the law in that era used the breach of an opponent’s anonymity as a means to expose opponents to harassment or legal repercussions.”
The breach of anonymity is an important feature of doxxing. Otherwise, it’s just “releasing potentially private information.”
I’m going to come back to this point, but first I want to point out that this piece is a bit of petty partisan poo-flinging.
The final paragraph of the article:
“Platform companies must step up and apply terms of service equally across users, even if the user is the state. When looking at the images of those arrested, we see all kinds of people: women and men, white and people of color, all of whom are taking up the fight against white supremacist violence in their city. Police departments tweeting without due process about alleged crimes is doxxing that endangers those protecting their communities. Police departments should not be above platforms’ policies.”
I think it’s odd that they’re calling for the federal government to be regulated by a private company. I think it’s odd that they’re calling for people to “[take] up the fight against white supremacist violence,” which appears to be a call to fight violence with violence. While I don’t think it’s odd that they think social media companies apply the rules unevenly, I’m flabbergasted by the fact that they think the left aren’t the clear winners here.
Keep in mind that Twitter briefly banned conservative personality Candace Owens about a week ago for copying tweets from Sarah Jeong and changing the maligned race.
But, none of this matters.
Even if I think they have a stupid answer, I think these authors are asking the right question: Should police departments post mugshots on Twitter?
Should they post any information about arrests? Is it legal?
Yes, in most places.
While it varies from place to place, most states require that an arrest log, or list of all arrests made by the police department, be made available to the public.
In California specifically, the California Public Records Act requires that a police department release the following in their arrest log:
- Full name
- Date of Birth
- Physical description including color of eyes and hair, height and weight
- Time and date of arrest
- Time and date of booking
- Location of the arrest
- The factual circumstances surrounding the arrest
- Amount of bail set
- Time and manner of release or the location where the individual is currently being held
- All charges the individual is being held upon, including any outstanding warrants from other jurisdictions and parole or probation holds.1This list is taken from the Berkeley School of Journalism.
- “[T]hese details can be withheld if ‘disclosure of a particular item of information would endanger the safety of a person involved in an investigation or would endanger the successful completion of the investigation or a related investigation.’”
So, some information is required to be released. In fact, you can find the Berkeley Police Department’s log online here, though it does appear to be missing some of the above categories. And, while I’m not in love with the final point, which seems to be completely open-ended and subjective as to when it should be applied, I agree with it in principle.
But, overall, I’m happy to see that the information must be released for three reasons.
First, it allows people to be informed about crime in their neighborhoods.
Second, it keeps the government from making people disappear Soviet-style. No one doesn’t come home from work one day and ends up spending the next twenty years in a work camp with no one knowing where they went. The arrest log is a great way to keep that from ever happening.
Third, it pretty convincingly proves that the police department isn’t doxxing people. They’re required by law to release a ton of personal information. If you don’t like it, your only recourse is to try and change the law.
I want to point out that a mugshot, while potentially embarrassing, is far less important than other information the police are required to release, like your full name, date of birth, and the crime that you are suspected of committing. I think the reason we respond more strongly to mugshots is that we have a stronger emotional reaction to pictures, even if other pieces of raw information are more important.
Furthermore, arrest records aren’t always forever. Your arrest record can be expunged in many situations, not limited to, but including, cases where charges are never brought against you or you’re found not guilty of the crime in question.
It makes sense to me that police departments would regularly publish or link to arrest information, as long as arrest information was promptly removed if an arrest record was expunged. This information is already public in most circumstances, so I see no reason why posting it in a place where it’s more readily accessible would be a problem.
Likewise, I think mugshots can serve a similar function to other kinds of information in arrest logs: helping inform the community when a law is broken. If your arrest is expunged for any reason, then they should be taken down.
This is all fine with me as long as it’s done consistently. Everyone who is arrested gets their mugshot posted, or no one does. I’m fine with danger to the person or criminal investigation exceptions, as long as the rules are written in such a way as to prevent cronyism.
So, in general, I think it was acceptable that the Berkeley Police Department posted the mugshots on Twitter. However, I do think criticism is warranted as they seem to have singled out a group of people, instead of posting all mugshots on Twitter for all arrests.
It seems that they may have had a bone to pick. According to spokesperson Byron White, the police department had a goal with releasing the photos: “’People are coming from out of town and bringing weapons and are committed to violence…We don’t want people to be able to do that with anonymity,’ White said”.
If they had consistently posted mugshots on Twitter, I’m not sure that there’s a valid objection here. As things stand the department may have erred.