Release of student mugshots is undignified, disrespectful

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GRAPHIC BY JAE CHO / THE FLAT HAT

April 17, 2018, eight students at the College of William and Mary, along with a dining hall employee and visiting assistant professor, were rounded up and arrested for the distribution of various drugs. These substances included marijuana, LSD, mushrooms, steroids and cocaine.

Although some media outlets have dubiously identified the involved parties as a “drug ring,” there is little evidence to suggest that those convicted were part of any organized crime group.

This event is a major milestone, rather than a conclusion, of an ongoing joint operation between the Williamsburg Police Department and the Tri-Rivers Drug Task Force. In the weeks leading up to the arrests, students at the College became aware of an increased police presence on campus and perceived a crackdown on student drug use. Student discussion on the issue reached a peak after some freshman dorms were raided by K-9 police units.

In the wake of the abrupt and shocking arrests, the College community felt left in the dark by the WPD. The Student Assembly, under the leadership of Brendan Boylan ’19, sent out a formal statement via email, condemning the WPD for releasing student’s names and mugshots, and for claiming that the arrests were in response to unreported sexual assaults.

“The way in which WPD handled the arrests was egregious and unacceptable, with a complete disregard for the integrity of our partnership with the City and dignity for the individuals involved,” Boylan said in the email.

According to the Virginia Attorney General, police are required to release the names of an arrested suspect, as well as the mug shot if it is available. There is a long-standing debate on the ethics of releasing mug shots, and many scholars argue that such an action violates the Freedom of Information Act.

The WPD may have been obligated to make this information public, but this fact bespeaks a larger issue in the American legal system: those arrested should be afforded basic privacy measures to protect incriminating mugshots from being made public. This necessity is particularly apparent in the case of these specific arrests. All 10 people arrested are no longer at large, committed no violent crimes, and most were very young.

The WPD’s assertion that these drug-related arrests were a response to sexual assaults appears nebulous at best.

“This investigation began when the Williamsburg Police department received information from various concerned sources that there were unreported sexual assaults occurring because of increased drug activity on or around the college campus,” Major Greg Riley, the WPD’s media contact, said in an email. “We did not receive any specific information about actual sexual assaults.”

While sexual assault is unquestionably one of the most paramount issues facing colleges today, the WPD’s decision to combat sexual violence by targeting dealers of the most commonly found drugs on American college campuses is not effective. None of the narcotics distributed or possessed by the suspects are conventionally associated with sexual assault cases. The WPD’s mention of sexual assault seems to be more of a post-operation justification for the arrests rather than the initial catalyst.

The College community should have been better informed by the WPD following this atypical and surprising incident. The arrested students were not treated with dignity, and WPD’s perceived causality between personal drug use and sexual assault is questionable. Students should keep in mind that the WPD and Tri-Rivers Drug Task Force’s collaborative operation is ongoing, and another bust could be right around the corner.

Email Robin Bradley at [email protected]

7 COMMENTS

  1. As the author, I would like to clarify some details. The title, which was tacked on after I submitted the piece and was not selected by myself, seems to imply that I believe William & Mary students should receive preferential treatment from the police pertaining to the handling of their mugshots. I do not believe that statement in the slightest– I am of the belief that no non-violent arrestee’s mugshot should be made public. The Virginia Attorney General requires police to release mugshots; it is conceited to believe that only W&M students should be exempt from this requirement. Additionally, the police department’s shoddy usage of sexual assault as the spark for this investigation is of far more import than the mugshots.

  2. This is a disgusting article that further highlights white privilege. Just because your a student doesnt neglect the fact your being charged with a crime. Grow up! Any adult charged with a crime gets a mugshot.

    • Thanks for your insight, Josh. My above comment may clear up some misconceptions regarding the argument of this opinion piece.

  3. Wait, which scholars think that the release of mugshots “violates” FOIA? Courts have disagreed on whether their release is always *mandated* by FOIA, but I’ve never heard the argument that it *violates* FOIA. This seems like an important distinction here.

    • Virginia’s FOIA says that the following are “required to be released.”: “Adult arrestee photographs taken during the initial intake following the arrest and as part of the routine booking procedure, except when necessary to avoid jeopardizing an investigation in felony cases until such time as the release of the photograph will no longer jeopardize the investigation; ”

      So Jared is right. There are ethical debates, and there are court rulings IN DIFFERENT STATES, but in Virginia, the law is pretty clear that they have to be released absent a worry that their release will jeopardize an investigation.

      • Hi Megan, thanks for your comment. That is correct, which is why I stated that the WPD was obligated to make this information public.
        Jared– I replied to your post yesterday with links to academic articles, but the comment is still under review by moderators, to double-check for spam.

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