The idea of a “virtual ride-along” that is “designed to give citizens a first hand view of what police work is like”—and to clarify the sorts of misunderstandings spawned by endless Law & Order reruns—isn’t a new one. We first wrote about the phenomenon in 2013, when a number of Texas police departments had their officers live-tweet their experience of responding to calls and carrying out their duties.
But in the years since the great 2013 Texas Tweet-along, what police do with social media has evolved. And in San Antonio, it’s evolved into something a bit more controversial.
Over the weekend, SAPD used the hashtag #VirtualRidealong to give people a chance to see not what police work is like on a daily basis, but instead the faces of men arrested as suspects in a prostitution sting. As KSAT reports:
San Antonio police are cracking down on a persistent problem, but with a new technological twist. They have been posting the results of an undercover prostitution sting on social media.
In a post on their Facebook page Wednesday night, police invited followers to take a “virtual ride-along” as they conducted an unspecified operation across the city.
Throughout the night, they posted pictures on the site, showing men in handcuffs.
KSAT 12 News has learned that operation had to do with prostitution, and in two nights, detectives made about a dozen arrests.
In Austin, Houston, and Fort Worth, the ride-along process is described by the local police department as an educational opportunity. That’s a worthwhile goal—one of the better ways to foster understanding and trust between police and civilians is to encourage them to see the world from the other’s perspective. Demystifying and desensationalizing police work makes the entire process more transparent and ultimately safer.
But it’d be hard to argue that the “virtual ride-along” in San Antonio accomplished these goals. Generally speaking, the bulk of police work isn’t high-profile sting operations for lurid crimes, it’s patrol work and responding to calls. And, more to the point, when SAPD posts the photos of the men arrested in the sting on Facebook, it’s not educating anybody on how police work actually happens. It’s just shaming people who’ve been arrested in a high-profile way.
Of course, visitors to the SAPD Facebook page seemed to enjoy it.
No doubt, it’s super fun to mock people, but it does seem curious that the San Antonio Police Department would offer up its citizens—who, it’s important to note, have yet to be convicted of anything—as fodder.
The practice of publicly shaming people who have been accused of crimes isn’t a new one, of course. It goes back hundreds of years and has delighted people for much of that time. Magazines like Busted! that only display mugshots of the accused are sold in gas stations in a lot of cities, including San Antonio. But police booking photos serve a legitimate law-enforcement purpose—police have a reason to know what people who’ve been arrested look like—and they’re public information that can be obtained for a handful of legitimate public-interest reasons. It’s hard to argue that the “virtual ride-along” that shames people for having been accused of soliciting prostitutes serves any legitimate purpose, especially if they haven’t been convicted.
All of which raises the question of which role public shaming ought to have in law enforcement in a social media age. Police officers claim that the threat of public shaming is an effective deterrent to potential customers when enforcing prostitution laws—though that’s all based on anecdotal evidence, not hard data—and it’s clearly popular with folks on Facebook. And public shaming as a punishment for those convicted of crimes has been found constitutional by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, so long as it’s not done strictly for the purposes of humiliating the people in question.