The History Behind Mugshots Reveals A Truth About Policing And Civilians

two men standing in front of mugshot gallery
Zain Murdock
June 23, 2023

In the 1850s, US police started taking notes from cops in Paris by taking pictures of people they arrested, editing them, and hanging them in “rogues’ galleries.” The public attended these galleries to learn who to watch out for. And to be entertained.

Even then, the mugshot relied on this country’s definition of “crime.” People who committed some of the greatest violence in the world didn’t have mugshots, but the average shoplifter or civil rights activist did.

Still, we now look at images of arrested and incarcerated people as “guilty” or worthy of punishment. Sociologist Michelle Brown calls that “penal spectatorship.” And this country’s obsessed with it, especially when Black people are in front of the camera.

In the modern age, online news outlets used digital galleries of mugshots to clickbait readers, sometimes even organizing them according to attractiveness.

Mugshots circulate through police departments’ social media accounts, gossip magazines, and nightly news segments, which all disproportionately over-report on Black people in crime stories.

Police use mugshots to invite the public and the media to police with them. Before we can even imagine a world without cops, we’ll have to dismantle that tradition, too. 

If you find pleasure in a stranger’s punishment this week, try to catch yourself. Ask, what’s behind this feeling?

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