It was a handful of years ago when I remember reading a story about a man being arrested for directing traffic in a diaper while performing martial arts with a stick. I laughed at it, made jokes, and shared it with friends. Even more recently, Sussex County and anyone with internet access mocked a Newton police officer for providing traffic law violators with a voyeuristic alternative to getting a ticket. I believe one of the article commenters referred to it as, “the short arm of the law.”
Nevertheless, publicly shaming those who’ve been arrested or charged with a crime seems to be a time-honored tradition, and understandably so. Yet after being arrested last October while dressed as a sea captain, I’ve found myself humbled by the reality of this widely accepted act of mugshot shaming. While we sit back in our computer chairs and churn out dopey puns about someone’s bad night, we forget that those people could very well be innocent.
It was something I struggled with when I was working as a reporter. Every time I got assigned an article regarding a blotter story, I felt a bit guilty. Most arrest articles are written based on police reports and those reports only reflect one side of the story and cannot be taken as absolute truth. There are plenty of things police do when arresting people that fall into the grey areas of legality, and as a result, police reports are often written in a way that provide probable cause for the arrest and charges. It’s a practice that is sometimes justified, but other times it can lead to false convictions or an innocent person having to accept guilt simply because they lack the money to fight the charges.
Not to mention, this guilty-until-innocent mentality of both police and the mugshot shaming public can have profound effects on a person’s livelihood and mental well-being. I can remember at least two job interviews I went on where at the end of it I was told I had the job pending a background check. Each time they said that I knew I wouldn’t get the job, and sure enough they decided to go with someone else. And while that person may have been a better fit, it’s also safe to assume that they didn’t want to hire a guy who was arrested with Ronald McDonald and Smeagol while dressed like a sea captain. When I asked what the deciding factors were for choosing someone else, simply so I would know how to improve my job search approach, they either never responded or gave a legally safe response. After all, it would be illegal to not hire me based solely on the fact that I was charged with but not convicted of a crime.
And while my situation and the ones I mentioned before are somewhat funny, the mugshot shaming extends to drug offenders and DUIs too. In some cases, some of the comments made at the expense of those people illustrate the detached and desensitized attitudes enabled by online anonymity. Chances are if someone gets busted with heroin or for a DUI they already have enough mental stress weighing them down. To be mocked and demonized on top of that could be devastating. Even in regards to my case I was dealing with psychological trauma from what had occurred that night. For a nearly a month, I’d wake up from nightmares of the incident. Granted, I knew no one I cared about thought negatively of me, but there were occasional moments where the thought of being pegged as a bad person by society at large would cause me incredible stress—mostly as it related to potential employers.
Everyone has bad nights, everyone makes mistakes, sometimes we’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it isn’t entirely fair for someone’s life or reputation to be completely dismantled as a result. Mugshot shaming may make you feel a little better about your life—it’s the same high people get from watching celebrities fall apart—it may provide you with some laughs, but when you weigh the multitude of negative effects it can have on the target of that mocking (especially when they might be innocent) we should ask ourselves if it’s worth continuing the practice.
In March 2013, the NJ State Assembly proposed and passed a measure (A3906) to ban the publication of mugshots until a person was convicted or plead guilty. According to the state’s website, the bill has been received by the NJ State Senate and passed along to Senate Law and Public Safety Committee for further review. It seems like a fair bill, one that would ensure that innocent people aren’t virtually marked for life because of mugshot shaming. However, once convicted the mugshot and story would be released and the comment box would be open for you or anyone to shame away. So while the bill recognizes the damages caused by mugshot shaming, it can’t possibly address the act itself. It is a practice that we as a society have to choose to reject on moral grounds or choose to embrace because it makes us feel good to feel better than someone else.
I will easily admit it’s hard not to find a ridiculous arrest story entertaining. Yet I understand that short-term entertainment isn’t worth the long term humiliation of another person—even a cop who shows his manhood to people he pulled over or the guy who asked police how to legally kill someone who was bothering him. Even the woefully stupid or perverse don’t need the extra mental baggage. Getting caught doing something dumb or creepy is usually enough personal shame to endure. It’s even worse if you didn’t do what you’ve been accused of. So before you leave a comment or post the link to your Facebook, at least consider the fact that the person whose arrest you’re about to share and mock may very well be innocent or simply slipped up. A little empathy in these times can go a long way.