KEY POINTS

  • The San Francisco Police Department will limit posting mug shots online effective July 1
  • Police Chief William Scott said this is a small step to reduce racial bias
  • Mug shots remain in police records even if cases have been dismissed

The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) will limit the release of mug shots of arrested suspects online in its bid to reduce racial bias, Police Chief William Scott announced Wednesday (July 1).

While booking photos of individuals arrested for various crimes are often posted and shared on the department's Twitter account, Scott said this standard practice will have to end immediately, except when the suspect is a public threat.

"[The mug shot] release is necessary to warn the public of imminent danger or to enlist the public’s assistance in locating individuals, including at-risk persons," the chief said in a statement. "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."

The decision was based on the SFPD's discussions among community groups, the media and academia, members of the police commission, the offices of the District Attorney and the Public Defender, as well as the Department of Police Accountability.

Scott said his department is taking a stand against racial bias while upholding the "core principle of procedural justice," where individuals booked for a crime are still presumed innocent.

42796170945_ca057e47d3_k Anyone arrested has their mug shot taken regardless of the gravity of the crime. Photo: Flickr

Anyone arrested, regardless of the gravity of the crime, get their mug shots taken at the police precinct. Whether the person is found guilty in court or has a case dismissed or dropped, the mug shot remains in police records, undermining the presumption of innocence.

These photos apparently affect people of color disproportionately, according to University of California Berkeley public policy professor Jack Glaser, whom the police chief consulted. Data showed many Black people with mug shots and arrest records are likely to have dismissed cases.

“That may be just be part and parcel of the same issue that police will stop and search Blacks at a lower threshold of suspicion in the first place," Glaser said. "So, their arrests are more likely to be unsubstantiated."

Scott said this is a small step from the SFPD and he hopes other departments will also consider the same action.

According to CBS San Francisco, the New York Police Department (NYPD) -- the largest in the country -- has an existing limitation on the release of mug shots. The NYPD doesn't release the booking photos unless detectives determine it will help locate the suspect.