KaeAnne Parris: Abolish Mugshots

I’ve called metro Atlanta home for my entire life, but moved ITP to Edgewood in 2014 and then Capitol View in 2019. Because of—or maybe despite this, depending on how you look at it—my long held delusion is that Atlanta is the best city in the entire world. Of course, if this series has taught us anything, it’s that Georgia’s capital is not without its problems.

Here’s one that’s been on my mind lately: what’s up with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution tweeting so many mugshots of Black people?

Since college, I’ve made an effort to make mental notes of photos attached to headline news. I always ask myself, why did they post a photo or mugshot of the accused? And does the accused fit into a narrative, even if it’s not explicitly stated?

With regard to my hometown newspaper, this trend became glaring to me in early 2020 when I was trying to keep up with current events on Twitter during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. I felt concerned, astonished, and disappointed with each tweet that included a mugshot. That concern prompted an internal dialogue: why did most of the mugshots look like me? Why did the headlines dehumanize the Black people accused? Why was I feeling this sense of unease?

Eventually, I direct-messaged the account asking if this proclivity I kept seeing was deliberate.

“I’ve noticed that the AJC often omits mugshots if the suspect is not Black,” I wrote on Dec. 15, 2020. “I hope it’s not intentional.”

“Not at all,” someone on their social media team wrote back less than 20 minutes later. “While there are some exceptions, we’ve actually stopped running mugshots for the most part.”

Yet, here we are, almost three years later with very little changed. Well, they did eventually post the mugshots of a few white people, the incredibly famous ones that the entire country was talking about back in August—the people for whom a mugshot won’t impact their future jobs and life prospects. But other than that, the trend remains.

The mugshot originated in 1840s Belgium, though it was actually two shots: a photo facing the camera directly and a profile photo—a portrait parlé, or speaking image. The idea at the time was to document alleged criminals in such a way as to stop them from committing more crimes during sentencing and also prevent them from disguising themselves.

At the heart of it, mugshots are a tool of policing, and caught on in the United States in the 1850s. They originated as a means of surveillance by everyday citizens to police ourselves, but also served as a brutish form of entertainment. Case in point: New York’s police department published and hosted several viewing galleries, the first in 1886.

The AJC was founded in 1868. The Journal and Atlanta Constitution were two separate newspapers originally, led by members of Atlanta’s elite, not to mention champions of white supremacy. The week of the 1906 Atlanta race massacre, the newspapers published fear mongering headlines like “negro attempts to assault Mrs. Mary,” and “burly negro attacks white woman…” While I didn’t come across any mugshots, per se, there are scary illustrated caricatures of Black men prior to the 1920s. The earliest reference I found for “mugshots” in the AJC was in 1956.

Today, the AJC has more than one million followers on Twitter. Earlier this year, the publication self-reported that it has seven million unique online visitors and 125,000 digital and print subscribers. The publication’s audience is 61% male. I include all these numbers for context, both in terms of the publication’s influence and to whom it’s largely speaking.

You notice some interesting trends when you start obsessing over which mugshots an account tweets and which it does not. For instance, when actor Shia LeBeouf was arrested in 2017, the AJC did not tweet his mugshot. But when entertainer Bow Wow was arrested in 2019, the AJC did tweet his mugshot. The Parkland shooter’s mugshot was not posted, and in AJC articles he’s described as a “broken child.” The Atlanta spa shooter’s mugshot was also not posted.

As the social network formerly known as Twitter continues to fall apart under its new and profoundly deranged leadership, it becomes almost impossible to do any real research there. But, in an effort to truncate the volume of posts, I did a deep dive into tweets between July 1 and 1 August of 2021, 2022, and 2023. I used the search term “arrested,” removed any posts involving Trump, discounted any duplicate tweets (like a lot of media institutions, the AJC tweets the same stories over and over), and only counted posts that include a “link” to a story.

In my 2021 sample month, 80% of the mugshots posted by the AJC were of Black people. But more than that, 47% of posts addressing Black people had a mugshot associated, compared to 11% for white people. In the 2022 month, 89% of the mugshots posted were of Black people. In the 2023 month, weirdly, only one mugshot was posted—a white man described as “grandfatherly.”

Mugshots remain in the public record forever. They are done prior to conviction, which is a stark contrast to the norms of our society, a place that likes to pride itself on “innocent until proven guilty.” It’s worth considering: if the suspect is already in custody, what does a mugshot contribute other than embarrassment, assumed guilt, and—in the cases we’re discussing here—racism? Some states require free removal of mugshots from the internet, and Georgia has a lengthy process for requesting removal from websites. Plus, mugshots can take on a life of their own, leading to misidentification of people—even members of Congress.

Americans spend thousands of hours a year on social media, and when you’re scrolling and refreshing you’re probably not opening up every article to acquire the proper context or thinking about why certain headlines are associated with certain people. How a publication presents photos or mugshots alongside an attention grabbing headline can reinforce assumptions and biases. The media is more likely to refer to an accused white person by name, not to mention describe and portray them as a father or husband. A Black person is more likely to be described by the crime allegedly committed, further othering them.

Whether intentionally or not, when the AJC posts mugshots that feature almost exclusively Black people, the publication reinforces a negative narrative that correlates criminality with Blackness. It’s worth noting that I was unable to find much specific AJC subscriber demographics, even reading through AJC impact reports and media audits. It’s also worth noting that an anonymous AJC employee told How I’d Fix Atlanta that, while they were unsure the data had ever been published, the general trends were “old” and “white.”

Moreover, publishing mugshots—on Twitter or anywhere else—is clickbait nonsense. The AJC’s mission statement says that the 155-year-old institution reports “what’s really going on in your community. We uncover the truth, protect the public’s right to know and hold community leaders accountable for serving the public. We document our region’s moments, milestones and people.”

My question is simple: where do mugshots fit into all of this?

Atlanta is a conundrum: Black leadership, Black police chiefs, Black businesses, and an abundance of Black wealth. But, Atlanta’s also the most surveilled city in the nation, incarcerates mostly Black people, doesn’t provide dignified housing to mostly Black people, has the largest income inequality gap in a mostly Black city, and the highest injury networks (pedestrian deaths) are in mostly Black districts.

Posting mugshots doesn’t build community. And community makes life in Atlanta infinitely better. So let’s take it step further, then. Let’s stop publishing mugshots. It’s possible, and really not even that much to ask.

Some cities are already doing this. In 2020, the San Francisco Police Department stopped releasing mugshots, citing 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.”

As a Black woman living in the so-called Black Mecca, I’m inclined to agree. It’s time for the AJC—and the rest of Atlanta’s media—to end this harmful practice.

KaeAnne Parris

KaeAnne Parris is a community and public health advocate, avid gardener, enjoyer of themed parties, and a person who finds refuge on her porch. She mostly writes about HIV, but also sends the occasional letter to her city council representatives. She wrote this essay in her personal capacity.