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.

Elizabeth Hewitt

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  • Barb Morrow

    I’m not crazy about posting mugshots, period. Why is this even something we do at all? As well, there’s a difference between posting pre-trial mugshots and making money from people’s pre-conviction misery. The Caledonian-Record specializes in the latter.

  • Additional thought: The general public tends to assume that a citizen is arrested as a result of his/her own behavior, when the truth is, a citizen’s arrest (and charge) depend equally on the behavior of law enforcement. This is reflected, for example, in the fact that people of color are arrested more than white people for drug crimes, when all the evidence is that the two groups use drugs at the same rate. Or that women serve time for non-violent offenses at twice the rate of men. The point is, the criminal justice *system* plays as significant a role in the outcome as the original citizen behavior–and the practice of posting photos, which focuses on the citizen’s alleged behavior and ignores the system’s role, only perpetuates a widely held myth that the system is good, effective and fair.

  • n this country people are supposed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. I don’t think it’s enough to print a disclaimer or to assume that people will apply that principle. What could be the reason for publicly outing someone, who has not, and may not ever be tried, or who may be found innocent, in a public forum? I think that it’s sensationalism and a rush to judgment. Someone’s good standing in the community could be damaged for no reason.

  • Matthew Valerio, Vermont Defender General

    The constitution often cuts both ways, in this case the 1st Amendment right of the press to publish versus the accused’s presumption of innocence. The Caledonian Record should be equally vigilant in publicizing the acquittal and dismissal of cases, and the reduction of charges, which happens in nearly 60% of all cases in the public defense system. If one believes at all in the Constitution, one must believe that it leads us to an appropriate legal result. Publishing only mug shots is like publishing the only the cover to the book with nothing on the pages inside.

    • Pat McGarry

      Vermont police officers cite some subjects, and arrest others, take a mug shot, and cite them. It seems somewhat random as to who is arrested (and photographed) pretrial, and who is not.

      Not all police citations- whether issued like a traffic ticket, or during a custodial arrest- result in the prosecutor filing an information (formal criminal charges in court).

      Unless police are required to make custodial arrests and take a mug shot every time they issue a citation, mug shots shouldn’t be released unless criminal charges are filed and a judge finds probable cause.

  • Pam Ladds

    This is so counter productive as a strategy it is mindblowing! While it is clear that “innocent till proved guilty” in an era of sensationalist media and faux news is never going to happen, despite the lip service, going beyond by posting mug shots of those accused is reprehensible. And shows a willful disregard for people. Would the media concerned be quite so cavalier if the photo was of one of their family members. Muck sticks, and damage to individuals and families cannot be justified.

  • Gary Murdock

    These publications are wide spread and popular in other parts of the country, Caledonian Record is not doing anything that is not already done in many places. They are also quite entertaining, I pick one up every time I go south to my 2nd home. My favorite is the Guess The Crime game. They have a group of mug shots, and a listing of crimes, then you try to match the crime to the offender. Answers are on another page. But I am surprised that this is being tried in Vermont, where 99.999% of the public is ultra PC, very thin skinned and so easily offended.

    • Pam Ladds

      Cool, have you volunteered your family for this game?

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