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Citing racial bias, San Francisco will end mug shots release

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — San Francisco police will stop releasing the mug shots of people who have been arrested unless they pose a threat to the public, as part of an effort to stop perpetuating racial stereotypes, the city's police chief announced Wednesday.

San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott and outside police experts said they believe the department would be the first in the nation to do so based on concerns about racial bias. The booking photos taken by police when a person is arrested for a crime are often made public whether or not the person is prosecuted for the alleged crime. That can undermine the presumption of innocence and help perpetuate stereotypes, experts said.

“This is just one small step but we hope this will be something that others might consider doing as well,” Scott said. Large cities like Los Angeles and New York already have policies against releasing booking photos but make exceptions. For example, the New York Police Department, the nation’s largest, releases information on arrests but doesn’t put out mug shots unless investigators believe that will prompt more witnesses to come forward or aid in finding a suspect. Georgia and New York stopped releasing booking photos in an effort to curtail websites that charge people to remove their picture and booking information.

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 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.

But the mug shots live on. Numerous websites post the mug shots, regardless of whether anyone was convicted of a crime, then charge a fee to those who want their photo removed. The phenomenon prompted California’s attorney general to charge one of the biggest operators with extortion, money laundering and identity theft.

Scott said that contributes to Americans making an unfair association between people of color and crime. Adopting the new policy is part of an effort to stop spreading negative stereotypes of minorities, something that Scott, who is Black, said he has experienced 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. In San Francisco, the only exceptions will be if a crime suspect poses a threat or if officers need help locating a suspect or an at-risk person, Scott said. Under the policy, the release of photos or information on a person who is arrested will also require approval from the police department's public relations team.

Eugene O’Donnell, a former NYPD officer and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said not every department that has a policy against releasing mug shots gives a reason. The San Francisco Police Department is the first he is aware of to say it is implementing the policy to stop racial bias, he said.

He said barring the publication of crime suspects' mug shots on television shows and elsewhere should be part of any meaningful justice reform in the country. “For a democratic society, we’re very cavalier about people’s rights and the presumption of innocence,” O’Donnell said. “We take people's freedom away and ruin people's reputations before anybody’s ever made a decision as to whether or not the person committed the offense.”

Nina Salarno, president of the advocacy group Crime Victims United of California, praised Scott's effort to address racial bias but expressed concern about how the department will decide which photos to release. She said releasing booking photos can help crime victims come forward.

“The only concern for the victims side of it is how are they categorizing and who is deciding which ones should be released to the public?” Salarno asked.

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