It was a relatively routine news release from the Richmond Police Department: A prostitution sweep in early December netted 20 women charged with prostitution and seven men who allegedly solicited such services. The release included Web links with their names, ages, residences and mug shots — a gallery of shame.
But do such releases go too far? Police make hundreds of arrests every day, most of which don't wind up in a news statement with names and pictures attached. And, of course, this exposure comes before any of the defendants have had their day in court.
Such charges are a matter of public record, and the police regularly distribute mug shots of violent crime suspects, arrestees and missing persons.
Timothy Morley, the 3rd Precinct lieutenant who helped spearhead the December prostitution sting, says the decision to post the mug shots is “up to our media unit.” But Morley, who says the rampant nature of prostitution is a serious issue in some areas, says that the reasoning behind the photo gallery has a legitimate justification: deterring repeat offenders.
“It sort of puts a face on it if you will. Or a number of faces,” he says.
David Baugh, the state capital defender for the Central Virginia region, says that while the photo gallery “seems unsporting,” it's by no means unusual. “Jurisdictions have done it in the past,” he says. “It's part of that public shame thing.”
That's exactly what bothers Kent Willis, the executive director of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “One of our objections to being highly public about arrests is that it essentially convicts people in the press,” he says. “It's clear they can do this,” he concedes.
Willis is also concerned about the effect such publicity may have on the lives of people who have not yet been convicted.
“For example, it's not against the law in Virginia for an employer to fire an employee who's been arrested for a crime but not convicted,” Willis says. “There are often significant personal and vocational consequences.”
Gene Lepley, public information manager for the Richmond Police Department, says the procedure of posting mug shots after prostitution stings precedes the tenure of Police Chief Bryan T. Norwood, but that Norwood has chosen to continue the policy.
As for the other visual impact of the sting — seven alleged male johns arrested versus 20 alleged female prostitutes arrested — Morley says the apparent gender discrepancy is an issue of logistics, officer availability and resources, not bias.
“It's just a little less complicated for us to put together the picking-up-prostitutes operation than it is for us to put together the reversal,” he says, citing safety concerns for female police officers.
“That's an issue of strategy that I'm not going to question,” Willis says.