Local media today was notified by New York State Police that they will no longer be releasing mug shots along with their arrest reports. We are told that these photos will only be released for “specific law enforcement purposes only,” i.e. in cases of searching for a wanted or missing person.
The reason? The recent passage of the New York State budget bill that has effectively prohibited the issuance of mug shots to local media from law enforcement. Their release was called an “unacceptable invasion of the individual’s personal privacy.” According to the Governor’s office, there are websites that post mugshots and charge an exorbitant fee to have them removed.
The Syracuse Press Club condemns what is tantamount to another restriction on information where the press should already have access. Indeed, we should always be alarmed when current FOIL law gets amended and the result is the further shielding of information to the public.
Journalists provide a service: to maintain the public’s right to know, and to keep and preserve records of what happens in a community. Any attack or cutback on press freedom is a dangerous move that should concern all members of the community.
We recognize the ethical issues raised by publishing mug shots. An arrest does not imply guilt or a conviction. Is it fair to highlight people who have been arrested but not been convicted of a crime? What if the charges are dropped? In an age when news lives forever online, the impact of published mug shot can certainly have a long-term effect on people’s digital identities. But in a wide-open digital landscape, the public is fully capable of finding the truth about arrests and convictions. And we as journalists should continue to deliver on our promise to tell the truth and follow-up on every single case on which we report.
We join with several other press associations across the state in condemning this policy. The problem clearly does not involve government records and local, hard-working journalists who work to tell folks what’s happening in their community. It’s the conniving companies that have taken advantage of these booking photos, but that shouldn’t mean the public should wind up on the losing end. We must be mindful of this slippery slope.