Crime and Justice

Distributing mugshots a balancing act for police, publishers

The electronic version of The Caledonian Record's Green Mountain Mugshots.

The electronic version of The Caledonian Record’s Green Mountain Mugshots.

While one Vermont police department has decided to curb social media images of people it arrests, a new publication is making a splash by publishing the pictures in full color.

The South Burlington Police Department announced earlier this month that mugshots of people who have been arrested will no longer be posted to the department’s 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,” South Burlington Police Chief Trevor Whipple wrote in a post on July 4.

Whipple gave a number of reasons for the decision, including that the posts “brought about a flurry of inappropriate comments.”

The Burlington Free Press first reported on the decision this week.

Meanwhile, a new venture from the Caledonian Record puts mugshots front and center.

Green Mountain Mugshots displays the photos of arrestees from the Vermont State Police website.

Todd Smith, publisher of the Caledonian Record, said Green Mountain Mugshots was “a no-brainer.” Mugshots are a public record, and the police should be transparent about their work, he said.

“I think that arrests are newsworthy,” Smith said. He added, “I think media has a responsibility to report newsworthy events.”

The Caledonian-Record Publishing Co. printed 12,500 copies each of the June and July issues, and the full-color tabloid has been distributed all over Vermont. Smith has not seen solid numbers yet on the returns, but he said it appears to have sold fairly well. The issues cost $3 each.

Most readers understand that a mugshot is not a conviction, Smith said.

“I don’t think though that an arrest record, which is known to be a snapshot in time, is something that people will jump to the conclusion that there’s a presumption of guilt,” Smith said.

The publication includes an explanation that the subjects of the photos have not been convicted. Smith also removes old electronic issues of the publication from the newspaper’s website at the end of the cycle, before the new issue is posted.

Smith says there is a big difference between printing photos and posting them online: There is no opportunity to comment on printed publications.

Suzi Wizowaty of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform said posting mugshots on Facebook exposes the subjects to an exceptional level of public scrutiny and comment.

“It is, of course, a matter of public record, but we all know that the Internet does not inspire the most thoughtful kind of reactions from people,” Wizowaty said.

Printing mugshots in a newspaper does not invite the same scrutiny that a social media post does, Wizowaty said, although she cautioned that publishing an image can perpetuate a premature presumption of guilt.

“I think it’s important for us to remember that until proven guilty you are innocent in this country,” Wizowaty said.

John Flowers, president of the Vermont Press Association, said newspapers believe police departments should err on the side of providing too much information, rather than providing too little.

Department policies about posting mugshots on social media can differ, but police are obliged to provide the images to media, he said.

Calls to Chief Whipple were not returned at the time this article was published.

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Elizabeth Hewitt

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