San Francisco Police Department will stop releasing most mug shots to combat racial bias

“With a thoughtful process for releasing booking photos, law enforcement agencies may help mitigate or avoid perpetuating negative stereotypes which can contribute to implicit and explicit bias in policing and by community members,” Scott announced in a notice to the department.

The SFPD will carry on releasing mug shots when “necessary to warn the public of imminent danger or to enlist the public’s assistance in locating individuals, including at-risk persons,” the department said in a news release about the policy change, but those will be the only exceptions to the new rule.

“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 the news headlines release.

When someone is arrested, their picture is taken within the booking process. These pictures are frequently posted on police websites, shared on social media marketing accounts and used in media reports. The photos remain in the public domain even when one is not prosecuted or is available not guilty. In some cases, commercial internet sites publishing mugshots charge a fee to remove the pictures, a practice now prohibited in several states.

Jack Glaser, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley who is one of many SFPD’s academic partners, spoke to CNN about the psychological phenomenon of “illusory correlations” and its own connection to racial bias.

“When two rare things occur simultaneously, our minds tend to overestimate the relationship between those two things,” explained Glaser, who also studies discrimination and stereotyping. “Crime is a rare event for most of us, and minority status is by definition a rare event.”

When the portrayal of crime and that of minorities are paired in the media, such as when it comes to the publication of mug shots of Black people, “that has an influence on the mental association between Blacks and crime,” Glaser told CNN.

Even in cases when the portrayal of criminal activity is racially balanced, “the distinctiveness of blackness and crime going together stands out in people’s perceptual field and is more likely to be remembered,” that he added.

Jennifer Eberhardt, a professor of social psychology at Stanford University, is also an academic partner of the San Francisco Police Department consulting on implicit biases and their real life implications for Black and brown communities.

Eberhardt told CNN concerning the “other race effect,” which highlights how people are better at recognizing faces of the own race than faces of other races. “People tend to think of the faces of other races in categorical terms, so that’s one of the things that can feed into this situation,” she argued.

In an experimental study she conducted, people were asked to recognize the contents of pictures depicting weapons like guns or knives. The pictures went from blurrier to progressively clearer.

Eberhardt observed that when the study participants were previously shown images of Black people before being given the blurry images of weapons, they might more quickly recognize the weapons in the blurry images.

“That’s an example of how this Black-crime association is so strong,” Eberhardt told CNN. Repeated exposure to mug shots of Black and brown people in the news or on social media marketing “is encouraging this association between race and crime,” she added.

Glaser and Eberhardt say the SFPD’s new rule is just a positive step as police departments around the world examine how their policies and methods may contribute to racial bias in policing.

Scott’s department notice allows the policy to be enacted straight away, SFPD spokesman Matt Dorsey said. The chief initiated a Department General Order to be passed by the Police Commission, which will make the policy permanent.

San Francisco Police Commissioner John Hamasaki, who is a huge proponent of changing the principles for the release of booking photos, called the SFPD’s new rule “an excellent first step.”

“Just because somebody is arrested doesn’t mean they are responsible for whatever acts they’ve been arrested for. That’s why we have a presumption of innocence in this country enshrined in our Constitution,” Hamasaki, a criminal defense attorney, told CNN. In the age of social media marketing, a mug shot posted online “doesn’t go away,” Hamasaki said, and it may have long-lasting negative consequences for a person’s career prospects and reputation.

Hamasaki’s says his expect the new policy is that it prompts “a broader discussion in other departments and other jurisdictions,” that he said.

“I hope it sweeps the country,” that he added.

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