The last week has seen two separate comment threads that have included lengthy discussions about when we do and don’t publish photos, so it seems like a good time to clarify the exact thinking behind those decisions.
Generally, our policy on photos follows a general philosophy: we want to give our neighbors all relevant information that will help them be safe, make informed decisions, and understand what’s happening around them in the most objective, non-sensational way possible. For people involved in violent crimes and other persistent criminal activity, we think it’s important that people be able to recognize the players on sight. That’s especially true as we talk about things like the new drug enforcement strategy that relies on an engaged and informed community to help steer drug dealers in a more positive direction, and report them if they break their end of the deal.
We will publish a photo for a suspect in a crime only in the following situations:
- When a suspect has been officially charged with a serious crime, such as a crime of violence, related to a violent gang, or a property crime such as burglary that is directly affecting neighborhood residents
- When police release a photo for a person they’re looking for that threatens the public’s safety
- If there’s video or photo of someone caught in the act of a crime
- If a photo is available (*see below)
We will not publish a photo for criminal suspects if:
- They haven’t been charged with a crime, unless there’s a very serious public safety reason to do so
- They’re alleged to have committed a minor crime that doesn’t directly affect the public’s safety or property. For example, it’s hard to conceive of a reason why we’d publish the photo of a drug user/buyer, as they’re addicts and not directly threatening other people. But a repeat burglar would be fair game.
- It is of a juvenile, unless there’s a very serious public safety reason to do so
* Photo Availability: The state department of corrections is the only official source for photos of criminal suspects, and those are only available if the suspect has previously spent time in a state prison. This drastically limits the opportunities for obtaining a photo, as many suspects have pleaded down to lesser sentences if they have been previously convicted of a crime.
Last week several people pointed out a racial imbalance in photo availability, in that no one has seen a photo of the suspect in the Leschi murder, who is white. It’s a totally valid point, and we looked far and wide for a photo of him but have so far come up blank. Rest assured that we will publish one if it ever becomes available.
One cause for this imbalance can be traced to county policy, which prevents the release of photos for people booked into the King County Jail. If that was loosened up, we would have been able to get photos of Appleberry and everyone else in the recent gang round-ups, which included a mix of races. However, with that policy in place we were limited to only getting photos from the state corrections department, and only one gang suspect had previously been that far through the justice process.
Since we’re not “professional journalists”, we checked around today to make sure our policy wasn’t out of step with generally accepted principles, and we found that it was right in line with other site’s policies. They agreed that official charges in a crime is the turning point for releasing names, photos, and other personally identifying information. That’s because the charging process, while not proof of guilt, has gone through a legal process to establish a reasonable suspicion of guilt. That makes it newsworthy, and something that the community at large should know about.