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Releasing Police Mugshots of Black Faces Causes Racial Trauma

Racial trauma is so insidious in society that I do not even take note most of the time. And when I do notice, I do not have the emotional energy to imagine changing it. When my white friends make racist comments or I see racism on display in other aspects of my life, I pretend not to notice or feel it is not worth the fight. I am embarrassed by this. I feel I should always speak up when I see injustice and abuse of power. Shine a light to let them know they are being racist or acting on their white privilege, but I do not.

Just like I have noticed for years the way that mug shots of Black people were being disseminated across the internet where they lived forever — in 2017, Florida passed a law requiring websites to remove the pictures free of charge. The companies were charging hundreds of dollars for removal — and on the television where they leave an indelible impression on the viewer. I knew how damaging this could be to individuals — particularly to the people I serve in the mental health court in my county — but I remained silent. I worked for the courts and still did not speak up. It is like that I feel powerless to make change, so I limit my activism. Well, much to my surprise, someone else noticed too and took action.

San Francisco recently announced that they will stop posting booking photos of arrested people online or releasing them to the public.

To that I say: it is about time. It is so traumatic to have your photo posted in that way when you know you are innocent or at least have not yet been found guilty. Now, all your friends, your boss and your community see you in the worst light with no recourse. As Olga R. Rodriguez says on AP: “The booking photos are taken when someone is arrested. They are often made public whether or not the person is prosecuted for the alleged crime, which undermines the presumption of innocence and helps perpetuate stereotypes.”

Every time I see a Black face on TV accused of a crime, my heart sinks. It is traumatic to once again see one of your brothers or sisters assumed guilty by the media before being prosecuted. I think these images are another confirmation to white people that all Black people are criminals. It is a punch to the gut when I see these images. Black people paraded around once again as a criminal. We are disproportionately shown, so it’s no wonder white people think we are all criminals when that is all they see. Black people are no more violent or criminals than the general population; we are just over-policed. My friends and I talk about our reaction to hearing about a mass shooting. Our first instinct is to turn on the TV and see the picture of the accused. We give a sigh of relief when it is not a Black person.

Over-policing and the disproportionate arrest of Black people remind me of what happened to a family member. White friends told him they shoplift all the time and do not get caught, so he should try it. My family member decided he would try it and he was immediately caught. I was angry with him for shoplifting but also mad at the system. Those white boys got away with it because the security was so busy following the Black kid around the store, they did not see the white ones shoplifting. He was arrested. I know if those white kids would have been caught, they likely would have had their parents called with no record of their detainment. So yes, we are over-policed.

Black people are not treated as individuals but instead as a mob. We are all guilty until proven innocent. (As far as the internet is concerned, never innocent). Releasing the booking photos just perpetuates that image. Black people who are arrested are most likely going to have their case dismissed by prosecutors, but the damage is already done. That is like burying a retraction in small print on page 20 of a newspaper.

The mugshot stays in perpetuity. This impacts employability and marks someone as a criminal for life because the public incorrectly believes if the police arrest you, you must be guilty.

My people have been through enough without being branded as criminals without due process and the protections that affords. Every time a white face is displayed on the news story, no one thinks all white people are bad and criminals because society assumes white people are individuals who act independently and have personal flaws. We are seen to have deep-seated flaws that transcend individuality. We are all lumped together to brand us as a culture that is criminal by nature.

The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement are helping make systemic change across the nation. There is so much more that needs to be done, but bold steps are being made to make some changes. The pressure needs to be sustained and those with power must be willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. If that means taking on the police union and losing your congressional seat, so be it. Black people cannot dismantle the master’s house without the access and tools to do it. White people have the access and tools. They must take this on as their responsibility and act to be anti-racist and an activist for change. Real change. Systemic change.

We cannot go back. We just cannot.

For more on the Black Lives Matter movement, check out The Mighty’s topic page.

Photo by Leighann Blackwood on Unsplash