TAMPA, Fla. -- In an age of social media, law enforcement agencies will often post photos or video these days to help track down suspects.
But once the arrest is made, how appropriate is it to share those images or even - comment on them?
There’s growing debate over whether posting such images and comments is nothing more than taunting. Perhaps even counterproductive.
“I find it rather unprofessional,” said Amanda Spock, looking at a recent mugshot post on the Polk County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page.
But Heather Mosher saw the same post from a totally different perspective.
“If he's out there causing trouble, he should ... have his comeuppance. He should be in trouble. Made fun of, in my opinion,” said Mosher.
Last year, a picture posted by the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office went viral after deputies grabbed a man they had just arrested by his dreadlocks.
These days, the agency posts are often more straight-forward.
"The posts we make are fact-based and inform the public of the circumstances of the cases in a factual way," Sheriff Chris Nocco said in a statement.
Still, there is now an increasing call from civil rights organizations asking law enforcement agencies to stop shaming suspects after they've been arrested, or even giving the public a forum to do so.
“Putting them on a public Facebook page where that photo can be shared thousands of times, where people can post comments and ridicule that person, does not help public safety,” said Hannah Sassaman with Media Mobilizing Project. The group recently spearheaded a petition in Philadelphia asking the narcotics unit to stop posting mugshots, and got them to scale back the practice after collecting more than 1,000 signatures.
“In fact, you could have a negative effect on public safety,” said Sassaman, “pushing people who will definitely be returning to society into recidivism, into a place of isolation.”
Within the past three weeks, the Polk County Sheriff's Office Facebook page told a suspect to "have a nice trip to jail". It also equated another suspect being bitten on the rear end by a K9 to Forrest Gump, and subjected an arrested robbery suspect wearing a purple wig to public ridicule.
A spokesperson says the Polk County Sheriff’s Office wants the public to know when crimes are solved not just when they occur. They also say they use what they call humor to engage the public.
“People who violate the law,” wrote a spokesperson, “should not be surprised if they are criticized for doing so.”
But critics say such statements presume the person whose image is being posted is guilty.
“Given that we have a presumption of innocence in this country, I think that goes a step too far,” said Vit Gulbis, reacting to the Facebook posts.
Both the Pinellas and Hillsborough County Sheriff's offices say they prefer to use their social media pages as more of a social outreach, posting more feel good stories and fewer arrests.
“When we posted things of that nature on Facebook, we would get some derogatory comments. And that's really not what we're looking for,” said Pinellas County Sheriff’s spokesman Spencer Gross. “We're looking more for an interaction with our followers.”
Civil rights activists say those same mugshots and arrest photos often get shared, making it harder for the people pictured to get a job or straighten out their lives.
They hope the public will pressure local police departments and lawmakers to end what critics consider sentencing by social media.
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