Springfield resident and Holyoke community organizer Jacqueline Velez said she no longer feels safe in her home after an action by the Chicopee Police: they posted her address on their Facebook page, along with her son’s mugshot.
Velez’s son, who lives in her home, was arrested late in June and charged with low-level offenses — breaking and entering a motor vehicle, speeding, and failure to operate headlights — and police posted the arrest, the photo, and Velez’s address online. That post has been shared a dozen times and has about 100 Facebook reactions.
“He hasn’t been convicted of a crime; he hasn’t been proven guilty,” Velez said of her son. “People who want to get revenge … to retaliate for getting robbed, they can come and hurt my son before he is ever found guilty of actually committing a crime.”
Velez is now among a growing number questioning why Chicopee’s police department is posting mugshots and low-level arrest information to social media at all.
Northampton resident Liz Jensen recently came across the Facebook page and was disgusted to see negative and derogatory comments made on posts featuring mug shots — usually about arrestees’ appearances. She said she found these comments to be on par with online bullying and feels Chicopee police are complicit.
“I only suggest to the Chicopee Police Department to disable the comments so that the public can’t say defamatory remarks on these photos. Especially since these people haven’t had trials yet and those remarks could potentially affect their upcoming trial,” she said.
Public Information Officer Michael Wilk of the Chicopee Police said, “Posting arrests and mugshots are public information. We want people to see what happens in the community and who is arrested for what crimes. We feel it is important for the public to see who is arrested for serious offenses.”
The department has a terms of service note on their page and remind people with posts to not harass or belittle people, or to otherwise violate the terms of service. They have filters on posts, though sometimes offensive comments get through and officers will hide them, according to Wilk.
Wilk said the Chicopee Police do not condone hurtful comments against anyone. They have posted on their page several times that people are innocent until proven guilty. While those people whose mugshots have been posted were arrested and charged with crimes, it’s not fair to them or their families to read those comments, Wilk said.
Chief William R. Jebb of the Chicopee Police Department created the department’s Facebook page in 2014 to show transparency in his staff and provide citizens of the community important information, according to Wilk. The Chicopee Police use their page to let people know of current laws and changes in law. They also post higher profile arrests and ask for assistance with identifying suspects from video and photos.
Chicopee Mayor Richard J. Koss called the practice of publishing an arrest log and information “long standing.”
“As a city, we constantly strive to support and improve public safety and all indications are that this has been very helpful to the public at large as well as to our police department, thus there are no plans to change this practice,” he said.
‘A form of online bullying’
Dr. Claudio Cerullo, the founder of Teach Anti-Bullying, a national nonprofit organization based in Philadelphia, has been providing advocacy and support to victims of bullying. Cerullo said he understands the police position to bring some level of awareness to the community regarding police activity. On the other hand, he said he feels they should have some type of sensitivity to those who get arrested, because social media posts further hardship to them.
“This is a form of online bullying,” he said. “It will not end and that person will never be able to move on with his or her life. They will never have any type of freedom and further subjects their respective families to additional harassment whether it’s physical or online by the community.”
Criminal Justice organizer Ellen Graves of Arise for Social Justice, a nonprofit organization in Springfield, works on issues such as housing, homelessness, environmental and criminal justice, and public health. She said that discrimination is a large part of bullying and the public is taking a piece of information to determine a person’s guilt or innocence.
“Social media is unlicensed and unruled and it’s hard to keep people from doing things like that, but it’s still a form of bullying,” she said. “With adults, there’s always people who feel they know more than anyone else. They have to pull others down to be happy and make sure people are intimidated, bullied, and treated like animals.”
Courtney Jeanne Young, a mother who lives in Chicopee said she considers the derogatory comments as a form of online harassment, and believes they should be disabled on posts with mugshots.
“I am glad the police department posts updates of what is happening in the community,” she said. “With situations that they are looking to the public for help or normal announcements, by all means enable comments.”
Young has recognized some of the people from the arrest photos online that she went to school with. It disheartened her seeing negative comments made about the arrestees. One she saw was a mugshot of a black woman from the Bronx arrested for shoplifting at a Home Depot. When her mugshot was posted on the Chicopee Police Facebook page, there were comments about wearing her hair in a natural style and claims that she was probably receiving government assistance. Young felt the need to speak out on those remarks.
“What she did was wrong, but those actions don’t give anyone a free pass at making sarcastic comments subtle or not subtle,” Young said. “Often times when arrests are posted, family and friends will defend the people arrested. This woman had nobody from around here to tell people they’re crossing a line.”
Bruce Frady, a retiree from Holyoke, also recognized one of his friends on the page — a woman who was arrested for larceny of a motor vehicle and firearm. Frady said he knows she’s been struggling with a heroin and cocaine addiction.
“Unless you lived it or try to understand it, then you just don’t know it,” Frady said of addiction. “In the power of addiction, you do things that you’re not proud of. I’ve been there so I know.” Frady started drinking at a young age up until he was 35 and then went into recovery. He was in recovery for 14 years, but then relapsed going back to drinking and doing drugs for the next five years. Frady went back to recovery and has been a recovering addict for eight years.
When he saw the comments about his friend’s mugshot, Frady responded by informing people about the dangers of drug addiction.
“It’s hurtful. People don’t realize how powerful drugs are. Addicts are willing to do anything to get more drugs,” he said. “Whether they’re stealing or robbing — whatever they have to do, they will do it. I think the police department postings are a way of bringing awareness. I’m hoping that it’s setting a positive note that these are the results of drinking and drug abuse.”
For Velez, a major problem is that people can be wrongly arrested and wrongly convicted. Through nearly seven years doing prison reform work in New York City, she observed many people being wrongly convicted, she said.
“I don’t feel safe and that’s not right,” she said. “I’m sure many people’s addresses are up there and they don’t even know it.”
Different departments’ Facebook practices
The Greenfield Police Deputy Chief Mark Williams said the department only posts pictures of adults arrested for felony charges, warrants related to felony charges, or in incidents which may have otherwise gotten a lot of community attention or generated a lot of questions to them. They do not post mugshot photos of arrests involving domestic violence, or situations where serious mental illness seems to be the primary contributing factor. They don’t post photos of people charged with drug possession but will post those of people involved in the alleged distribution of drugs.
The Valley Advocate did not find any mugshot images posted to the page in 2019, but found several photos of those arrested on felony charges posted in 2018.
Williams said the Greenfield police do not agree with, support, or encourage people to write any comments on the arrested person.
“We have a use policy which outlines our guidelines for commenting on any of our page’s posts and we occasionally post our guidelines to remind people,” Williams said. “We have banned users from our page who violate our guidelines after warning them.”
On their posts involving arrests or mug shots, the Greenfield Police often have their comments set to hidden so other viewers cannot actually see the comments that are put there. But one post from November 2018 showing a man arrested and charged with felony larceny has dozens of comments. While the majority of the comments congratulated police on the arrest, a few belittled the arrestee, drawing attention to his neck tattoo and calling him “scary.”
“We understand the argument about additional shaming and stigmatization of the arrested parties, but we balance those concerns with the right for the community as a whole to know what is going on and who might be involved in it,” Williams said. “We also hope that there are concerned friends, family members, and service providers who may see something on our page and use that information to encourage people to get the help they may need.”
Lieutenant James Albert, the press officer of the Holyoke Police Department, said police departments haven’t always been at the forefront of social media, but have come around to using it.
An Advocate review of the Holyoke Police Department Facebook page photos found only two mugshots posted, both more than five years old.
“At our department, we try to be careful with the information we put up,” Albert said. “There is a place and a time for posting stuff and you have to be cognizant of the effect. Information can used good or bad. You have to weigh the benefits of putting it out there.”
The Hatfield Police Department started their Facebook page last year to communicate with the public for road closures and getting general information out to their citizens, according to Hatfield Chief Michael DeKoschak. They post upcoming outreach events, weather alerts and share topics of interests from other police departments.
“Every department has their reasons for doing what they do, but we typically don’t post mugshots,” DeKoschak said. “Every town is different, and people are different in what they expect or don’t expect from their police department.”
Hatfield’s police department did not have any mugshot posts on their Facebook page.
“Negative and/or positive comments are something you can’t avoid,” DeKoschak said. “When you’re putting stuff out to the public, there are some that will appreciate it and then others that don’t in any group of people. I guess the question would be whether or not it’s preventable and if the outcome is better than a few hits you take on Facebook from negative commenters, then you have to weigh the odds.”
Jody Kasper, the Chief of Police in Northampton, strives to keep her department’s Facebook page positive and informative providing information effectively and efficiently. The Valley Advocate did not find any mugshots posted to its Facebook page.
“Different departments use social media in different ways and it’s up to agency personnel to determine what kind of social media presence they want to have,” Kasper said.
They post accomplishments of their staff, information pulled from their open data initiative, community concerns (road closures, hazards and scams), community outreach events, images of lost and found pets, and occasionally images of unknown subjects who they are trying to identify from surveillance video from a store or bank. The department chooses not to post booking images on their social media pages, unless they feel there is an immediate threat to the public or to the individual.
“The focus of our social media accounts is highlighting the great work of our staff, alerting community members about traffic, safety or other concerns and in general, making people aware of our activity,” Kasper said.
Captain Ronald Young of the Amherst Police Departments said they try to limit their social media posts to information for the public, both what they are doing in the department or other happenings in the community. No mugshots were posted to their page.
“Areas that may invite public comment are welcomed by our agency and we prefer to handle them in person instead of on our social media sites,” Young said.
Chicopee is the only local department that Jensen said she could find that uses their Facebook page in a way she finds offensive. She contacted city and county officials to ask that they change their practices.
As far disabling comments, Chicopee Officer Wilk says, “We will not disable commenting, it would disable on everything and community interaction is important. Just because you do not like a comment doesn’t make it removable.”
Velez, who now fears for her safety due to a Chicopee Police posting, said her main concern is for the department to discontinue posting addresses over social media.
“I don’t think it’s a good practice at all,” she said, adding that people can use that information to try to take the law into their own hands. “It is the worst thing I’ve seen as far as professionalism from a body that is supposed to protect.”
Editor Dave Eisenstadter contributed to this story.