Mugged: The sordid, racially charged history of police mugshots

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We’ve spent the last year doing an investigation on mugshots and the mugshot scam industry — websites that scrape police databases for booking photos, then post them on their own site, making them easy to find on search engines like Google.

Watch Mugged, The Naked Truth’s full investigative documentary on the mugshot industry, Sunday, March 6th at 8 p.m. on FUSION, or online here.

They charge hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars to take the mugshot down, whether the person in the photo is guilty or not. One of the reasons the sites are so effective is because people love to look at mugshots. But that doesn’t change the fact that they make people look guilty as hell.

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Turns out mugshots have been around since the beginning of photography itself. In the 1840s, police departments started creating what they called “rogues’ galleries,” a collection of photos of suspects and convicts.

An early and fascinating example of this — the original mugshot website, if you will — is the Professional Criminals of America, a big book of bad guys published in 1886 by a notorious New York City police chief. (You can look at the digital copy here.)

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The book contains mugshots, along with colorful descriptions of crimes and criminals, to help the public catch crooks. The categories — some were a little different then — include burglars, forgers, pickpockets, “bank sneak thieves,” “banco men,” “horse sale fraudsters,” and “tricks of sawdust men”. And then, of course, there are murderers.

Inspired by the scientific rage around eugenics, there was a widely held belief at the time that criminals had certain identifiable features and traits, like thick lips and low brows. It was an early version of racial profiling.

But it wasn’t until 1888 that a French police clerk named Alphonse Bertillon created the modern day mugshot format: two photos, side by side–one head on and one profile. He standardized the lighting, the angle, and that plain background, giving the person in the photo that oh-so-guilty look.

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He presented his mugshot at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and it quickly caught on with American police departments. It was also adopted throughout Europe and Russia.

Newspapers started running mugshots much later, in the mid-1900s, as part of crime stories. Most peoples’ mugshots, though, sat in dusty police files, away from the public eye.

It wasn’t until the internet came along that mugshots rose to international notoriety.

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Digital technology has made it easy for people to access mugshots from law enforcement databases and post them on their own sites for everyone to see. And the more unscrupulous site owners began charging to remove them for a fee in what amounts to little more than extortion.

Since booking photos are public records, no one has figured out the best way to deal with this problem or stop mugshot websites from operating — even though the proliferation of mugshots online raises serious concerns about an individual’s right to privacy in the digital age. Alphonse Bertillon’s legacy continues, but not in a way he could have ever imagined.

Take Action

If you have been a victim of a mugshot website or simply don’t agree with mugshot extortion websites, you can file a complaint with your state’s attorney general, the Federal Trade Commission, or the FBI’s internet crime unit. You can also join together with other victims of mugshots.com on their Facebook group, organized by Jimmy Thompson, a victim who tells his story to Fusion viewers in Mugged.

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Mugged: Inside the shady industry that profits on mugshot photos

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