San Francisco police stop releasing mugshots to prevent racial bias

‘Those booked on suspicion of a crime are nonetheless presumed innocent of it,’ says chief William Scott

James Crump
Thursday 02 July 2020 23:52 BST
Heavily armed riot police break up peaceful violin vigil for young black man killed by fellow officers

The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) will stop releasing mugshots of people who have been arrested in an attempt to stop racial bias.

San Francisco chief of police William Scott released a statement on Wednesday that said the city’s force will only release booking photos in necessary circumstances.

He said they will only be provided when “their release is necessary to warn the public of imminent danger or to enlist the public’s assistance in locating individuals, including at-risk persons”.

A booking photo is taken of someone after they have been arrested, and is often published online and used in articles by news organisations.

Mr Scott said that the photos are often released to the public, despite the fact that not everybody arrested for a crime is subsequently convicted of it.

Jack Glaser, a public policy professor at the University of California Berkeley, told NBC that data shows that African Americans are more likely to have their cases dismissed after they have been arrested.

“That may be just part and parcel of the same issue that police will stop and search blacks at a lower threshold of suspicion in the first place and so, their arrests are more likely to be unsubstantiated,” Mr Glaser said.

The chief echoed Mr Glaser’s comments in his statement, and said that the city’s department has decided to ban mugshots to try and stop stereotyping and racial bias.

“This policy emerges from compelling research suggesting that the widespread publication of police booking photos in the news and on social media creates an illusory correlation for viewers that fosters racial bias and vastly overstates the propensity of black and brown men to engage in criminal behaviour,” Mr Scott wrote in his statement.

The policy has been announced amid a renewed discussion around racial bias and police brutality against African Americans, following the death of George Floyd.

Protests have taken place in every state in the US following the death of Mr Floyd, who died after his neck was knelt on by Derek Chauvin, who at the time was a Minneapolis police officer, and has now been charged with second degree murder and manslaughter.

Protesters have called for police reform across the country to tackle bias and institutionalised racism.

“By implementing this groundbreaking new policy today, SFPD is taking a stand that walks the walk on implicit bias while affirming a core principle of procedural justice — that those booked on suspicion of a crime are nonetheless presumed innocent of it,” Mr Scott said.

Police commissioner John Hamasaki first raised the policy idea in February, and he said on Wednesday that it is a “key” step in the department’s attempts to tackle racial bias.

“There’s a lot of good reasons why mugshots shouldn’t be posted,” Mr Hamasaki told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I don’t see any good reasons, outside of the exceptions that are in there, to post them.”

He added: “It might seem like a small step but it really is, I think, a key part of reframing the narrative on how we view black and brown individuals in this country — removing that method of criminalising them.”

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