Mug shots are a snapshot of the worst days of people’s lives. They’re taken when someone has been accused of a crime, but not convicted; fodder for the public’s voyeuristic impulses even if they serve no purpose to the public.
No matter what happens next – whether a person is cleared, convicted, serves their sentence or has their record expunged – many of those photos continue floating around the internet. They can keep popping up for years, including in searches when someone is looking for a job, when they’re trying to build a safe life or even in news stories when they are victims of a crime. They can make people the targets of racism, threats and public humiliation.
In recent years, there’s been a shift away from publicly posting mug shots in the media and by some law enforcement offices. Several news outlets have said they will no longer publish daily mug shot galleries or post mug shots of people who have been arrested but not yet convicted of a crime.
But that reckoning has yet to hit one of the widest-reaching platforms in the world: Facebook.
The platform continues to allow law enforcement agencies to post mug shots, usually of people who have not been convicted of a crime. If a local law enforcement agency does not actively post mug shots to Facebook, sometimes individual users will – a web of amateur-run “local mug shot” pages have spread across the platform.
Often the person pictured in the mug shot will be recognized, or even tagged, in the comments, prompting a pile-on from members of their community. The more people comment and react to the mug shot, the further the post will travel throughout the social media platform. Even if the individual is never convicted of a crime, there is no mechanism for getting the image removed.
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment, but it often claims that it is a neutral platform rather than a publisher that makes editorial decisions about the content on its site. In reality, Facebook does moderate content and the company has policies prohibiting certain content it deems too harmful. Although enforcement is inconsistent, Facebook claims to prohibit bullying, harassment, hate speech and posts containing personal or confidential information that could lead to physical or financial harm.
Mug shots typically contain or invite all of the above. Pages operated by people who cull mug shots from the local sheriff department’s websites and repost them on Facebook attract tens of thousands of users who gleefully gawk at the arrests of people in their communities. Because the mug shot pages are location-specific, Facebook users often recognize the people in the mug shots and comment with intrusive commentary about their lives.
“She is trash cuz someone else is raising her kids,” a member of the Niagara County Mugshots group – which has 24,000 followers – commented on a picture of a mug shot. “Dude did not give her the d she tried to take it im guessing by the look on her face,” another group member commented on a different mug shot. The Niagara County Mugshots page links to a merch page which sells T-shirts that say, “PUBLICLY SHAME YOUR LOCAL SEX OFFENDER.”
Even when group members do not recognize the individual under arrest, the comments typically devolve into hateful vitriol. “Make sure to disinfect him before you release him into the wild again,” one commenter posted. “Another Polish monster removed from society. Though, is justice really being served? Locking up a Polish person is like sending a dog to prison. They have no idea what they did wrong, or why they are there, ”another wrote.
“They’re producing content like any other content creator. It’s to get clicks, it’s to engage. ”
– Rutgers associate professor Sarah Esther Lageson on law enforcement Facebook pages
Even some law enforcement officials have acknowledged the harm caused by mug shots spreading online. A spokesperson for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office praised the Houston Chronicle for doing away with mug shot galleries. The San Francisco Police Department announced in 2020 it would no longer release mug shots without an immediate public safety reason. The following year, California state lawmakers restricted law enforcement from posting mug shots on social media for people arrested on nonviolent charges.
But throughout the country, cops continue to post mug shots of the arrests they make as a way of promoting their work – at the expense of those who stand accused but not convicted of a crime. The Lee County Sheriff’s Office in Florida regularly posts mug shots with salacious captions on its Facebook page, where it has 205,000 followers. The Sheriff’s Office refers to the people it arrests as “thugs” and “criminals.” The captions are written in a way that suggests the goal is to make the mug shots go viral. The posts describe the alleged crimes in theatrical detail and include hashtags and jokes about the defendants, including referring to a man arrested around Christmastime as a “Grinch.”
Facebook users often respond by cheering on law enforcement and thanking them for keeping their community safe – even in cases where it’s not clear the individual arrested posed much of a threat.
Facebook’s platform allows police departments to post their own content, rather than relying on the media to cover their arrests and messaging, said Sarah Esther Lageson, an associate professor at Rutgers University who researches the growth of online crime data, mug shots and criminal records.
“They’re controlling the narrative and they use Facebook and mug shots as a way to show how busy they are. They’re producing content like any other content creator. It’s to get clicks, it’s to engage, ”Lageson said. “And for what? Who’s bearing the brunt of the problem there? It’s the person that’s going to be publicly shamed. ”
The Lee County Sheriff’s Office does not appear to delete comments even when they are racist or threatening. Their mug shot posts include comments such as: “Send Pedro back to Haiti,” “Hope he gets what he deserves in prison, hopefully he will find out what it’s like to get violated by the other inmates,” “Illegal ?,” and “Will he get a slap on the hand because he is a minority, underprivileged?”
The Lee County Sheriff’s Office often posts mug shots of kids, including many who will never be found guilty of a crime. Even those who are later found guilty may be eligible for an expungement of their juvenile record as adults.
Caitlyn Mumma, a public information officer at the sheriff’s office, said they try to remove mugshots of individuals whose records are expunged but not for people who are never convicted of a crime after their arrest “because it’s a public record even if the charges get dropped. ”
Last year, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office posted a mug shot of a 12-year-old boy accused of making violent threats on social media, with a caption that includes the boy’s home address. The image of the child, captured on what was likely one of the worst days of his life, has been shared 27,000 times and has 45,000 comments. Several of the commenters took it upon themselves to diagnose the child with severe mental illnesses, citing the absence of tears in the mug shot.
The 12-year-old boy’s parents could not be reached for comment but Lageson has done extensive research on how people respond to their mug shot blowing up online. “They get totally overwhelmed. And even if they feel like it’s a privacy violation, or due process violation, their instinct is to sort of avoid it as much as possible, ”Lageson said.
That leads to avoiding any circumstance that could prompt others to discover the mug shot. “Online dating, volunteering at schools, churches, applying for promotions, applying for more safe or stable housing or employment – these are all real things that people have told me they’ve stopped doing because of this,” Lageson said. “And of course, these are all the things that make us safer, because those are all factors that prevent crime.”
In 2020, Facebook put out a call for proposals from academics seeking funding for research related to digital privacy. Lageson submitted a proposal that included creating a process for people to request their mug shot be removed from the platform, especially if their record had been expunged.
Lageson did not receive the grant.