The Palo Alto Police Department (PAPD) is reputably not the busiest police force. According to City Data records, Palo Alto’s crime index in 2012 fell just shy of 40. To give you a quick comparison, that same year, Menlo Park was reported at 141.4, San Francisco was reported at a 411.8 and Detroit was reported at 1009.7.
Now, the fact that Palo Alto faces less crime than these other cities does not mean that the PAPD is any less legitimate than the other mentioned police forces. It seems that what the Palo Alto Police lack in arrests, it makes up for with Facebook “likes.”
Yes, you read that right — Facebook likes. On the Palo Alto Police Department Facebook page, its last five posts had an average of 106.2 likes. To give you a quick comparison, on the last five posts on its Facebook page, the Menlo Park Police Department received an average of 10.2 likes, the San Francisco Police Department received an average of 36 likes and the Detroit Police Department received an average of 84.8 likes. Oddly, the crime rate and average Facebook likes paralleled for Menlo Park, San Francisco and Detroit, showing that statistically, the greater the crime presence, the greater the Facebook presence. When Palo Alto is thrown in the mix, this statistic is shattered.
Now, having a social media presence is not to be discouraged among law enforcement agencies. It lets them interact with the people they serve in ways that used to be impossible. In cities that struggle with high crime rates, people can turn to the social media presence of their police forces for important information that they can use to stay safe. So what could be the impetus behind the disproportionately high Facebook presence of the PAPD? It could be its attention-grabbing practice of posting suspect mugshots and arrest stories on its page.
The Palo Alto Police Department posts the mugshot and incident reports of suspected perpetrators to its Facebook page, making them accessible to anybody. These posts generate huge numbers of likes and comments, with people sharing their thoughts on the arrests and suspects. Comments on the posts can be racist and demeaning to the suspects and often leave people assuming the suspects’ guilt right off the bat. Those pictured have already been arrested and booked, meaning that there is no threat of them continuing their supposed crimes.
While this practice does net the PAPD massive numbers of likes, it is unfair to the suspects pictured and should be stopped because of the disrespect and negative attention it focuses on the people. It does nothing to actually make Palo Alto a safer environment, as those pictured have already been incarcerated, meaning that public awareness of their appearance is meaningless.
When a Palo Alto High School senior was arrested and subjected to this treatment on April 6, several students took a stand against this practice.
“Beneath the technical and legal [constraints] that police are taught to abide by, there are things that need to be accounted for when we put people in these situations on a human level of respect and understanding,” junior Adi Beth said.
The police cannot control the opinions of those who choose to view its posts, but it can control what they themselves post. By taking down the photos of their suspects, the police department would be able to avoid the negative or racially charged comments directed at the arrested. The publicity that the practice gives the department is not worth the disrespect focused on the suspects. PAPD should choose to take a potential hit to its Facebook fame in order to protect the names of the people arrested.
Although suspects are innocent until proven guilty, the posting of in-depth reports and large mugshots gives the impression that the authorities are putting the suspect on display for the whole world to gawk at, and many on social media take advantage of this, applauding the arrests and condemning the suspects who in reality are just that, suspected of a crime.
This is the 21st century version of public shaming: parading a suspect through the streets in chains and does nothing to make the community safer, as the people are already in the system.
“Despite being [suspected] criminals, the most important thing we have to remember is that these people are still humans who deserve nothing less than the type of respect and acknowledgement you would pay a friend,” Beth said. “What I think is that the police should re-evaluate their motives and ideology behind exposing offenders on Facebook.”
This issue comes down to the level of respect with which the Palo Alto Police Department woud like to grant those it arrests, many of whom started out as people meant to be served and protected by the department.
Being arrested and charged with a crime is an incredibly stressful situation for anybody, innocent or guilty, and those who are entering the unforgiving criminal justice system in this country shouldn’t also be saddled with the public, uncensored infamy that comes from the Internet.