San Francisco police to stop releasing mug shots in a move to dismantle state-sanctioned racist stereotyping

San Francisco police to stop releasing mug shots in a move to dismantle state-sanctioned racist stereotyping
(Getty Images)

Following in the footsteps of Los Angeles and New York City, the San Francisco Police Department announced that it would stop releasing mug shots of suspects who had been arrested for crimes. This welcome move comes at a time when the need for stopping the perpetuation of racial stereotypes is at an all-time high.

San Francisco Chief of Police William Scott implemented the policy with immediate effect on Wednesday, July 1, and said, "The booking photos would only be released in exceptional circumstances" where it would be necessary to "warn the public of imminent danger or to enlist the public’s assistance in locating individuals, including at-risk persons." Scott explained that the decision to end the release of these photos was influenced by the SFPD's partnership experts in a "collaborative reform process" that included input from academia, community groups, news organizations and members of San Francisco’s Police Commission, Public Defender’s Office, District Attorney’s Office, and Department of Police Accountability.

"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 behavior," Scott said. He also said that, by implementing this policy, his police department would be upholding one of the fundamental tenets of law enforcement: that anyone who was arrested was innocent until proven guilty. "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," he said.

San Francisco police chief William Scott enacted the policy with immediate effect  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)


The chief went on to thank the expertise of the department's academic partners who had contributed to drawing and enacting the policy, Dr. Jack Glaser from the University of California Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and Dr. Jennifer L. Eberhardt of Stanford University, as well as the numerous other people and offices who had played a crucial role in the process.

Glaser, who authored 'Suspect Race – Causes & Consequences of Racial Profiling,' praised the department for the move. "San Francisco’s is the first police department in the nation, to my knowledge, to implement a policy to halt the release of most booking photos in order to avoid the problems they risk creating by fostering implicit bias," he said.

"Kudos to SFPD Chief Bill Scott for his commitment to a reform that’s on the leading edge of 21st century policing and which holds the promise of being a national model for other police departments to follow," he added.

The Daily Mail reported that both the Los Angeles Police Department and the New York City Police Department, the country's largest, have enacted similar policies but not to combat racial stereotyping, and have made exceptions.

In the case of the latter, booking photos are released if authorities believe it will prompt witnesses to come forward and provide information about a crime. New York state as a whole had adopted the change to curtail websites that would post these mug shots online and then charge the accused to remove their picture and booking information.

The LAPD's new policy also addressed a legal question as to whether law enforcement agencies in California had the discretion to provide copies of photographs of arrested persons in response to requests from members of the public under the Public Records Act.

Citing a 2003 opinion from then-Attorney General Bill Lockyer’s office, it was explained that law enforcement did enjoy the powers of such discretion and that "mug shots fall within the ‘records of investigations’ exemption of relevant law."

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