A D.C. lawmaker is looking to end the Metropolitan Police Department’s long-standing ban on the release of mug shots of people who are arrested — a move she hopes will increase the likelihood of solving other crimes.
With Tuesday’s introduction of the bill, D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh, a constitutional law professor, is wading into territory that has split U.S. appeals courts and state attorneys general.
“When you see someone’s picture, it may offer the opportunity to connect a person up with other crimes,” said Ms. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat. “It allows us to connect a string of crimes in a way we otherwise wouldn’t.”
Citing a hypothetical example, Ms. Cheh offered the scenario of a crime victim who gets a good look at the perpetrator and later sees a mug shot of the same person, allowing police to link the suspect with another offense.
All of the jurisdictions surrounding the District — Prince George’s County, Montgomery County, Fairfax County, Arlington County and Alexandria — regularly make mug shots available on their police department websites. However, the District, keeping in line with the Department of Justice, has a practice of not releasing mug shot photos.
“Photos of suspects and defendants are typically not released except for law enforcement purposes, such as seeking fugitives,” said William Miller, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, which prosecutes crimes committed in the District.
A spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Police Department did not address written questions about the reason for the department’s policy or offer any indication on whether it would oppose the Mug Shot Access Act, which would make booking photos of an arrested person available to anyone upon written request.
“We have not reviewed the legislation and therefore cannot comment, at this time,” police department spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said in an email statement.
Court rulings have allowed for different practices among law enforcement agencies across the country.
The U.S. courts of appeal in the Denver-based 10th and Atlanta-based 11th circuits have ruled that federal authorities may withhold mug shots of federal prisoners from the public. The Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled that booking photos must be released under Freedom of Information Act requests.
While supporters argue that the publication of mug shots can increase public awareness and safety, use of mug shots for commercial purposes has drawn criticism.
Websites and print newspapers dedicated to the dissemination of mug shots now specialize in forms of local crime voyeurism. For such publications, mug shot photos are gleaned from information released publicly by law enforcement. Some, like the website Bustedmugshots.com, offer free access to mug shots across the country but will charge a $98 “administrative fee” for the removal of a mug shot.
In Utah, a county sheriff has compared the practice to “extortion” and said this month that he no longer would make mug shots available on the Salt Lake County Jail’s website.
Others, such as the Oklahoma-based OK Jailbirds newspaper, are sold for $1.50 an issue, offering the names, photos and criminal charges of people who have been arrested.
After a push by David Reid, publisher of OK Jailbirds, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt issued an opinion last month stating that the release of a mug shot does not constitute an invasion of privacy and that they must be released to the media or anyone else who requests a photo.
D.C. resident Martin Moulton, 46, is in favor of requiring police to release mug shots but said he would be open to waiting until a conviction.
“At the least, I’d like to see it before their sentencing,” said Mr. Moulton, of the Shaw neighborhood in Northwest.
Mr. Moulton said he thinks residents might be more interested in crafting community impact statements — descriptions of how a crime has affected a community that are submitted to a judge before sentencing — if they saw the convicted person’s picture and could recall seeing the offender in their neighborhood.
“If some of these repeat gun and burglary offenders are walking down your block, many while still on probation (judging from court reports), headed to their next crime, having their mug shots made public would help shine a light on situations and help residents police our own communities much more than street lights,” Mr. Moulton wrote in a posting this month to a listserv operated by the Metropolitan Police Department.
Ms. Cheh said two-thirds of states have laws that allow the distribution of mug shots. Rather than leave the issue up to the police department to define policy, she said, she would like the issue brought up for legislative discussion.
“This was an introduction and it will begin the conversation,” she said.