Thursday July 16, 2015
Like many other law enforcement departments, the South Burlington Police Department has used social media to post information about arrests, with the intention of being transparent with the public and opening up community dialogue. Along with the details of the arrests, individual’s mugshots were also posted to the department’s Facebook page. Vermont’s Public Records Law (1 V.S.A. §§ 315-320) deems this a legal process.
The mugshot postings sparked a heated discussion of transparency versus public shaming. Early this month, SBPD changed its policy, and will no longer post mugshots on its Facebook page.
Though sharing public information and community dialogue has its merits, some considered that the chosen platform was a violation of the suspects’ privacy.
“I understand that what the SBPD is posting is public knowledge, but that doesn’t mean Facebook is the correct use of media to use,” Laura Williams wrote in a Change.org petition. “...I strongly believe in this because I have friends who are now getting bullied and harassed on Facebook. I want you to think if this was your friend this was happening to.”
Shortly after the petition launched and with an uptick in the number of comments left under the postings, the SBPD disabled the comment feature on Facebook. Eventually, after hearing more comments from the public as well as from suspects’ families, and evaluating the situation with City Manager Kevin Dorn and the city’s attorney, Jim Barlow, the SBPD made the decision to discontinue posting mugshots.
Police Chief Trevor Whipple left the following message on the department’s Facebook page on July 4:
The South Burlington Police Department will no longer post mugshots on our Facebook page. After weighing the public transparency versus the posting of pre-adjudication images of those arrested it was felt that not posting is the best course of action. Mugshots will continue to be shared with the media through our regular media release protocols. They also remain accessible, as do most police records, through Vermont Public Records requests.
I realize that this change in policy will result with a mix of reaction. I appreciate the discussion that has been held between myself and those who fall on both sides of this topic. Many in our community have seen value in the posting of mugshots and appreciate seeing who is being arrested. Others have presented arguments and positions as to why posting mugshots can be particularly harmful to someone who may be successful in a restorative justice process, has charges not filed, has charges dropped or is found to be not guilty of the accused crime. The posting of mugshots also brought about a flurry of inappropriate comments. In the end I believe the best course of action is to no longer post mugshots to the Police Department Facebook page.
The decision was made, in part, to prevent casting a shadow over The South Burlington Community Justice Center (SB CJC), which is a program of the city and the police department.
For individuals who have committed low-level offenses, the SB CJC offers restorative justice panels which consist of citizen volunteers and victims. This provides the offender a chance to admit fault and address how to resolve the effects of their wrongdoings.
According to the city’s website, “In 2007, research of Restorative Justice Panels in VT showed a reduction in the rate of recidivism by 23% in the initial years and by 12% over several years.” This is based on individuals who are on probation.
“We don’t have a number for the rest of the cases. My assumption is that it would be even bigger than that because there are fewer crimes,” CJC Coordinator Lisa Bedinger said. Between 80-85 percent of offenders successfully complete their work with the SB RJ Panels.
Chief Whipple’s actions to remove the postings prompted more public input, some for, others against the new policy.
“I think that it’s great that SBPD has finally understood what damage can come from posting mugshots on their Facebook page,” Williams said. “People were getting bullied, getting harassed, losing their jobs, having their families find out about the posts before they even knew or could tell their families themselves.”
Other community members didn’t see it quite that way.
“I am very disappointed to hear the [SB]PD will not be posting mug shots anymore,” stated Stephanie Sumner-Erskine, who posted a review on the SBPD page. “I feel this is a massive public safety risk as now the community is left in the blind. I for one was grateful at knowing who I had to avoid and protect my children against.”
“It was not a decision made in a vacuum,” Chief Whipple said. “There were a lot of things considered. Initially, the intention was to provide transparency to our community, and I think to some degree it did that, but one of the unintended consequences was that it became more an entertainment site and folks were making derogatory comments.”
“We fleshed out what is the consequence of doing this, is it what we as a city government want to do, and is it fulfilling the goal we wish to accomplish.”
Prior to the decision, Chief Whipple said there was a particularly meaningful dialogue amongst a few community members. South Burlington resident, Susie Merrick, was one of them. Merrick wrote a letter to Chief Whipple in April with her thoughts that this practice was not keeping true to the department’s mission to ensure the safety of its citizens.
“As a person who has made mistakes in my own life and benefitted from a second chance...my concern was that those photos would diminish the potential for a restorative journey for the individual accused of the crime,” she said. “Those photos are taken when people are not at their best both physically and mentally…[I]t’s easy to make an assumption...and it’s sometimes harder work for each of us to take time to get to know that person, understand his/her story and find out the facts,” Merrick wrote.
There are a number of police departments in Vermont and across the country that post mugshots on their social channels, such as neighboring Winooski. In 2013, the Bristol Police Department’s Facebook page ignited the same debate. Although not everyone will see eye-to-eye on the transparency versus privacy subject, there is one thing they have common: they’re talking about it.
SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent