Mug shots are a snapshot of the worst days in people’s lives. They are taken when someone has been accused of a crime but not convicted; Fodder for the audience’s voyeuristic impulses, even if they serve no purpose to the audience.
No matter what happens next — whether a person is acquitted, convicted, served their sentence, or their record is deleted — many of these photos continue to circulate around the internet. They can show up for years, including in searches when someone is looking for a job, when trying to build a secure life for themselves, or even in messages when they become a victim of a crime. They can make people the target of racism, threats and public humiliation.
In recent years there has been a move away from the public release of mug shots by the media and by some law enforcement agencies. Several news outlets have announced they will no longer publish daily mugshot galleries or publish mugshots of people arrested but not yet convicted of a crime.
But that reckoning has yet to hit one of the world’s widest-reaching platforms: Facebook.
The platform still allows law enforcement agencies to post mug shots, usually of people who have not been convicted of a crime. When a local law enforcement agency isn’t actively posting mugshots to Facebook, individual users sometimes do—a web of amateur “local mugshots” pages has spread across the platform.
Often, the person depicted in the mugshot is recognized or even tagged in the comments, leading to a stampede of members of their community. As more people comment on and respond to the mug shot, the post has spread across the social media platform. Even if the person is never convicted of a crime, there is no mechanism to have the image removed.
Facebook has not responded to a request for comment, but often claims it has that it is a neutral platform and not a publisher making editorial decisions about the content on its website. In reality, Facebook moderates content, and the company has done so Policies Prohibiting Certain Content it considers it too harmful. Although enforcement is patchy, Facebook claims to ban it bullying, harassment, hate speech and posts with personal or confidential information which could result in physical or financial harm.
Mug shots usually include or invite all of the above. Pages run by people who weed mugshots from local sheriff’s department websites and repost them on Facebook attract tens of thousands of users who gleefully gawk at the arrests of people in their communities. Because mugshot pages are location-specific, Facebook users often recognize the people in the mugshots and post intrusive comments about their lives.
“She’s trash because someone else is raising her kids,” a member of the Niagara County Mugshots group — which has 24,000 followers — commented on an image of a mugshot. “Dude didn’t give her the d, she tried to take it I’m guessing from the look on her face,” another group member commented on another mugshot. The Niagara County Mugshots page links to a merch page that sells t-shirts that say “PUBLICLY DAMAGE YOUR LOCAL SEX OPERATOR.”
Even if group members do not recognize the arrested person, the comments usually degenerate into hateful spite. “Make sure you sanitize him before releasing him back into the wild,” wrote one commenter. “Another Polish monster removed from society. But is justice really served? Imprisoning a Pole is like imprisoning a dog. They have no idea what they did wrong or why they are there,” wrote another.
“They produce content like any other content creator. It’s about getting clicks, it’s about getting engaged.”
– Rutgers Associate Professor Sarah Esther Lageson on Law Enforcement Facebook Pages
Even some law enforcement officials have acknowledged the damage caused by mug shots circulating online. A spokesman for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office praised the Houston Chronicle for getting rid of mugshot galleries. The San Francisco Police Department announced in 2020 that it would no longer release mugshots without an immediate public safety reason. The following year, the California state legislature prohibited law enforcement from releasing mug shots of people arrested on non-violent charges.
But across the country, police officers continue to release mug shots of their arrests to promote their work – at the expense of those charged with a crime but not convicted. The Lee County Sheriff’s Office in Florida regularly posts mugshots with salacious captions to its Facebook page, which has 205,000 followers. The Sheriff’s Office refers to the people he arrests as “thugs” and “criminals”. The captions are written in such a way that the goal is to make the mugshots go viral. The posts describe the alleged crimes in theatrical detail and contain hashtags and jokes about the accused, including referring to a man arrested around Christmas time as the “Grinch”.
Facebook users often respond by cheering and thanking law enforcement for protecting their community — even in cases where it’s not clear the person arrested poses a major threat.
The Facebook platform allows police departments to post their own content instead of relying on the media to report their arrests and news, said Sarah Esther Lageson, an associate professor at Rutgers University who studies the growth of online crime data , mug shots and criminal records researched.
“They control the narrative and use Facebook and mug shots to show how busy they are. They produce content like any other content creator. It’s about getting clicks, it’s about getting engaged,” Lageson said. “And for what? Who is bearing the brunt of the problem there? It is the person who is being publicly shamed.”
The Lee County Sheriff’s Office does not seem to delete comments even if they are racist or threatening. Their mug shots include comments such as: “Send Pedro back to Haiti”, “Hopefully he gets what he deserves in prison, hopefully he finds out what it’s like to be abused by the other inmates”, “Illegal?” and “Get him a slap on the hand for being a minority, underprivileged?”
The Lee County Sheriff’s Office frequently releases mug shots of children, including many who are never convicted of a crime. Even those later found guilty may be entitled to have their juvenile criminal records wiped as adults.
Caitlyn Mumma, a public information officer with the sheriff’s office, said they’re trying to remove mugshots of people whose records have been deleted, but not people who were never convicted of a crime after their arrest “because it’s still.” is a public record even if the charges are dropped. ”
Last year, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office released a mugshot of a 12-year-old boy accused of making violent threats on social media, with a caption that included the boy’s home address. The picture of the child, taken on what is probably the worst day of his life, has been shared 27,000 times and commented on 45,000 times. Several of the commenters took it upon themselves to diagnose the child with serious mental illness, citing the lack of tears in the mugshot.
The 12-year-old boy’s parents could not be reached for comment, but Lageson has done extensive research into how people are reacting to her mugshot, which is exploding online. “You will be totally overwhelmed. And even if they feel it’s a violation of privacy or due process, their instinct is to avoid it as much as possible,” Lageson said.
This leads to avoiding any circumstance that might cause others to discover the mug shot. “Online dating, volunteering in schools, churches, applying for promotions, applying for safer or more stable housing or employment — these are all real things that people have told me they stopped doing,” Lageson said. “And of course these are all things that make us safer, because these are all factors that prevent crime.”
In 2020, Facebook issued a call for proposals from scientists seeking funding for research related to digital privacy. Lageson submitted a proposal that included creating a process for people to request that their mug shot be removed from the platform, particularly if their file has been deleted.
Lageson did not receive the scholarship.