San Francisco

Mugged: SFPD ban on offender photographs harms San Franciscans

Last week cameras filmed as murder suspect Brian Dowling was led by police officers down the precinct steps and into a waiting car. Family and friends of the victim, Ryan Carson, were thus able to see the man accused of the horrifying caught-on-camera street attack within hours of his arrest.

In a sense Dowling was unlucky to have been arrested in New York City; had his crime been committed in San Francisco there would have been no ‘perp walk’. In fact, authorities here would have gone to great lengths to prevent a booking photo from seeing the light of day and even hidden the fact that he was arrested at all until his initial court appearance was done and dusted.

This secrecy is at odds with criminal justice practice elsewhere in the nation and has the effect of concealing the reality of violent crime – and the enormous amount of it committed by recidivists – from city residents. It infantilizes San Franciscans, who authorities believe cannot be trusted with such information, and confines it instead to a small coterie of privileged insiders.

It wasn’t always like this. Only a few years ago the police adopted a more laissez faire approach to offender photos. These were released routinely and identified those held by police – a practice that stood the public in good stead given that many were subsequently arrested again and again for ever more serious crimes with ever more serious consequences for victims and the community.

And the police didn’t particularly play favorites – even releasing the booking photos of their own officers who had been arrested in internal affairs probes.

Whereas before police would even issue photos taken ‘at the counter’, today it can be difficult to figure out who has been arrested at all. Police incident numbers, if provided, can allow cross-referencing with ‘arrest logs’ to identify perpetrators – but SFPD will frequently take weeks to produce these logs which will in any event usually be incomplete or missing days worth of data.

So the criminals have been taken out of crime reporting.

How did this happen?

In 2020 San Francisco Police Chief – and proud Angeleno – William Scott ordered his officers never to release booking photos of suspected murderers, rapists, armed robbers and narcotics traffickers even when they have substantial track records of violence, sexual assault, gun crime and drug dealing.

From felons with lengthy rap sheets accused of broad daylight murder, such as Randall Evans, to, well, other felons with lengthy rap sheets accused of broad daylight murder, such as Milton Thomas, there is no crime so egregious that SFPD won’t carefully protect the privacy interests of the offender.

But SFPD’s principled commitment to criminals’ confidentiality goes further. They also instruct California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation – who will release inmate photos of current or prior state prisoners – not to release them using ginned-up concerns about impeding an investigation into their latest arrest.

In refusing to release booking photos for even those accused of the very worst crimes, San Francisco is an outlier. Even where other police departments – such as NYPD – don’t generally release booking photos, they will almost always do so in cases of serious violence, as with Ryan Carson’s murder.

When instituting his policy, Scott said he was relying on the advice of Berkeley public policy professor Dr Jack Glaser.

Glaser’s case wasn’t that mugshots presented an inaccurate picture of crime, but rather that it didn’t matter as residents of America’s most progressive city were unutterable racists who, when provided with accurate information were incapable of sober analysis and, instead, became even more racist.

“When [people] hear about crime and hear about minority status,” Glaser said, “they tend to overestimate the relationship between those two things.”

“Even if the reporting is proportional to the offending, there is a human tendency to ratchet it up.”

Rather than dismissing the proposal out of hand – a proposal whose basis was the assumption that residents of his adopted city were bigots – Scott ceased all public access to booking photos.

His move was supported by a who’s who of apologists for hardened violent criminals.

Franco Harris was arrested with his brother in December 2019 for a “shooting” on Market St. Franco Harris had pulled out a semiautomatic handgun and fired five shots, hitting a man three times in the back and leg. The victim survived after emergency surgery.

The mid-morning shooting – regarded as attempted murder by federal prosecutors – saw terrified bystanders running for cover. Other bullets smashed the window of a nearby restaurant and were found to have hit seats inside.

The “brazen, violent and nearly deadly” incident resulted in U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer splitting the difference between prosecution and defense sentencing recommendations and imposing a 57 month term. Regardless of that notional sentence length, Franco Harris is scheduled for release from Bureau of Prisons custody in December 2023 and will be back on the streets by Christmas.

Less than two months before the shooting he had been convicted of assault likely to cause great bodily injury after tricking a resident in to allowing him in to his building before pushing him to the ground, strangling him, and then robbing him. In 2016 he was convicted of another robbery. He has three juvenile convictions – two for assault with a deadly weapon and one for felony theft – in addition to two juvenile arrests for carrying a concealed firearm at school and attempted murder.

He is a deadly menace who will undoubtedly seriously hurt someone else. But for fortunately being arrested by SFPD in the months before Chief Scott’s policy was implemented, San Franciscans would be none the wiser about who to be on their guard against. With his mugshot perhaps his next victim may have a fighting chance.

It is criminals such as this that Scott’s blanket policy is designed to protect – not those people who become embroiled with the police in one-off low-level incidents. Several police departments have adopted a tailored approach which addressed those concerns, such as releasing photos only of those arrested for serious offenses. Others have cracked down on ‘extortion’ websites that charge money to remove photos that have been published in bulk.

It seems likely that San Franciscans don’t care about the race of the person violently assaulting them or their loved ones, but do care about an unwarranted focus on perpetrators’ privacy which is indicative of misplaced priorities about public safety.

Public servants’ attitude to release of arrestee photographs is a bellwether for their approach to criminal justice in general. When the ban is reversed, and a return to a more measured approach made, it will suggest that police and policymakers are adopting an approach that properly protects the public.

Further commentaries will examine public access to court dockets and information in San Francisco and provide an in-depth look at how details of arrests are made available.

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