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San Francisco Police to Stop Publishing Mug Shots, to Fight ‘Racial Bias’

‘This is just one small step but we hope this will be something that others might consider doing as well…’

San Francisco Police photo
Black Lives Matter protest in San Francisco/Photo by vhines200 (CC)

(Claire Russel, Liberty Headlines) The San Francisco Police Department will stop releasing mug shots in an effort to end “racial bias,” according to city police Chief Bill Scott.

Scott claimed that mug shots, or photos taken after a suspect is taken into custody, often perpetuate “negative stereotypes which can contribute to implicit and explicit bias in policing and by community members.”

To avoid this, the SFPD will only release 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 SFPD claimed that “compelling research” supports this policy change, since mug shots in the news “create an illusory correlation for viewers that fosters racial bias” by leading citizens to believe “black and brown men” commit crimes more frequently than other ethnicities.

This is called the “other race effect,” according to Jennifer Eberhardt, a professor of social psychology at Stanford University, who told CNN that mug shots confirm implicit racial biases within police departments.

“This is just one small step but we hope this will be something that others might consider doing as well,” Scott said.

Other large cities, such as Los Angeles and New York, already have policies against releasing mug shots. But they make exceptions when investigators believe that the photos will prompt more witnesses to come forward. But in San Francisco, the only exceptions will be if a crime suspect poses a threat or if officers need help locating a suspect or an at-risk person, Scott said. And before mug shots are released, the SFPD’s public relations team must approve the release.

This policy will likely result in a legal challenge, since most media outlets depend on mug shots when reporting stories. And removing mug shots from the public eye could make it more difficult for the SFPD to catch suspects, said Nina Salarno, president of the advocacy group Crime Victims United of California.

“The only concern for the victims side of it is how are they categorizing and who is deciding which ones should be released to the public?” Salarno said.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report).

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