Long Holiday Weekend? More Like Longread Holiday Weekend!

All the true-crime news that'll be stale by Monday

Hello, friends! How is it July already? What a weird summer this has been.

To celebrate July 4, which as of publication time remains a holiday despite its problematic affiliations and origins, we’re making tomorrow’s BE a discussion-thread-only affair — we’d rather have a conversation with you than at you over the long weekend.

We’re also dropping the annual subscription price of this thing to $4 a month for folks who sign up from now through Sunday. That’s $48 (instead of $5/month or $55/year) for around five issues a week of all the true crime that is indeed worth your time. (That deal works on gift subs, too!) As always, thank you so much for subscribing and supporting — it would be impossible to continue BE and The Blotter Presents without you. — EB

Does your local police department still release mug shots to the media? There’s been a lot of talk about this lately, as newspapers (and their websites) continue to rethink the value of publishing photos of folks who’ve not been convicted.

Photos of arrestees are a web traffic cash cow, but concerns over ethics — and a renewed focus on social justice — prompted a multitude of news sites to dump those galleries. In an email sent to media Wednesday, the San Francisco Police Department announced an additional step in the debate, saying that they would no longer release booking photos to the media unless photos were being circulated to find a suspect. Though some cities have curtailed mugshot circulation to cut off mugshot gallery scams (which are seriously horrible!), the SFPD says they’re the first department in the U.S. to make the decision as part of a concerted effort to avoid minority stereotyping.

Here’s the letter the SFPD sent, in full:

San Francisco Chief of Police William Scott today implemented a groundbreaking new policy that will end the San Francisco Police Department’s practice of releasing booking photos or “mug shots” 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.

The policy change, which Chief Scott issued in a unilateral department notice this morning, was heavily influenced by SFPD’s partnership with 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. “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. I’m grateful for the expertise of our academic partners, Dr. Jack Glaser from the University of California Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and Dr. Jennifer L. Eberhardt of Stanford University, for their guidance in developing our policy. I am also thankful to the members of our San Francisco Police Commission, Public Defender Manohar Raju, District Attorney Chesa Boudin, Department of Police Accountability Director Paul Henderson, community members and news media professionals who also gave helpful input in this collaborative process.”

“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,” said Dr. Jack Glaser, a professor at the University of California Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and author of the book, Suspect Race — Causes & Consequences of Racial Profiling. “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.”

Law enforcement agencies across California and around the nation routinely release booking photos through departmental news releases, on web sites and through social media channels. A 2003 California Attorney General’s opinion, which was cited in SFPD’s notice on the new policy today, addressed a legal question as to whether law enforcement agencies in the nation’s largest state had discretion to provide copies of photographs of arrested persons in response to requests from members of the public. 

Then-Attorney General Bill Lockyer’s office opined at the time that law enforcement agencies do have such discretion, “though once a copy is furnished to one member of the general public, a copy must be made available to all who make a request.” Unlike prescribed information in which the California Public Records Act requires disclosure, however, the A.G. opinion had “no hesitation in finding that mug shots fall within the ‘records of investigations’ exemption” of relevant law, making the release of police booking photos wholly discretionary. (Source: California State Attorney General’s Opinion No. 03-205, July 14, 2003, https://oag.ca.gov/system/files/opinions/pdfs/03-205.pdf)

As I write this Wednesday night, the policy has yet to generate much coverage in SF. But the Chicago Tribune has already weighed in, quoting SFPD Chief Bill Scott as saying “This is just one small step but we hope this will be something that others might consider doing as well.”

(Yes, that is Tim Allen, here’s the deal.)

Let’s get ready to reeeeeead! Best Evidence’s story budget (that’s our list of things we need to cover) runneth over, but by Monday, July 6, a lot of this stuff might be past the sell-by date. Anyway, you’ll probably be looking for true-crime content of all stripes to read and listen to this weekend, so let us hook you up. Here we go!

And for your ears:

Friday on Best Evidence: Get ready to discuss some summer crimes, friends!

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