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San Francisco police halt release of most mug shots in effort to stop fueling racial bias

"Publication of police booking photos ... vastly overstates the propensity of black and brown men to engage in criminal behavior,” SFPD Chief William Scott said.
Image: William Scott
San Francisco Police Chief William Scott answers questions during a news conference, May 21, 2019, in San Francisco.Eric Risberg / AP file

San Francisco police will stop releasing most mug shots in an effort to curtail any racial bias they may perpetuate, the department's chief announced Wednesday.

San Francisco Chief of Police William Scott said that the booking photos would not be released any longer, effective immediately, "except in circumstances where 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."

Booking photos are taken when someone is arrested. They are often made public whether or not the person is prosecuted for the alleged crime, which undermines the presumption of innocence and oftentimes contributes to racial stereotypes, the chief said.

“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 in a statement posted to the San Francisco Police Department website.

The policy change was influenced by "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," according to the statement.

“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," Scott said.

But even if cases are dropped or charges dismissed against someone, their mug shot doesn't go away — an issue that also disproportionately affects people of color.

Jack Glaser, a public policy professor at the University of California Berkeley who researches racial stereotyping and whose work Scott consulted, said data shows Black people who are arrested are more likely to have their cases dismissed by prosecutors.

“That may be just be 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,” Glaser said.

Mug shots, even of people who haven't been convicted of any crime, can still circulate online.

Numerous websites post photos of mug shots and then charge a fee to those who want their photo taken down. The phenomenon prompted California’s attorney general to charge one of the biggest operators with extortion, money laundering, and identity theft. Georgia and New York stopped releasing most mug shots in an effort to prevent such online activity.

Mug shots contribute to Americans making an unfair association between people of color and crime, Scott said. "This is just one small step but we hope this will be something that others might consider doing as well,” he said of the SFPD measure.

Large cities like Los Angeles and New York already have policies against releasing booking photos, but make exceptions. The New York City Police Department, the nation’s largest, releases information on arrests, but doesn’t put out mug shots unless investigators believe it will prompt more witnesses to come forward or if it will assist in finding a suspect.

But San Francisco will be the first to adopt the policy specifically as part of an effort to stop spreading negative stereotypes of minorities, something Scott — who is Black — said he is all too familiar with when not in uniform.

“You walk into a department store and you get followed around and the security is looking at you suspiciously — I’ve experienced that,” Scott said.