Gerber: Were mugshots the worst decision?

Gerber: Were mugshots the worst decision?

November 24th, 2013 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

Alison Gerber

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press.

On Nov. 5, the Times Free Press published a front-page story about the arrests of 32 men charged with gun and drug crimes after a four-year local and federal investigation. Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd called the suspects the "worst of the worst" in Chattanooga's criminals.

We heard no reaction from readers. Not a peep.

On Nov. 17, the newspaper published a second front-page story about the suspects and their criminal histories. This time, we were barraged with feedback. Some of the words used to describe the report: irresponsible, distasteful, racist.

The difference? The second story included the mugshots of all 32 suspects. And the photos highlighted something: All 32 suspects are black men.

See their faces all in one grouping and you can't ignore that. You can't just shrug it off.

It was an in-your-face presentation, and some readers thought it was a mistake, that we should not have published the mugshots at all. Even some in the newsroom disagreed with the decision to run them -- or thought we should have placed them on an inside page where they wouldn't be as noticeable and would be seen by fewer people.

Many argued with the choice to refer to the men as the "worst of the worst," even though those words were chosen by Dodd, a man who's been in law enforcement for a quarter of a century.

The combination of those two things -- the photos of 32 faces and the label "worst of the worst" -- prompted a visceral reaction.

Some of the people who complained didn't read the story, which was balanced and actually asked why the "worst of the worst" were only black. The story's author, crime reporter Beth Burger, examined the court records of the men considered the worst. She found that collectively they have been connected to 103 assaults, 14 attempted murders, 27 robberies, two murders, 160 drug offenses, 42 weapons-related charges, and hundreds of lesser crimes.

She interviewed one of the men whose photo was on the front page and his mother. Officials said the investigation was aimed at key figures in Chattanooga's crack cocaine market. They're targeting the importers bringing in powder, the dealers selling the crack and those who use violence and intimidation to protect their turf. They said this was just the first in a series of planned arrests.

The newspaper didn't arrest or indict the men. We didn't label them the city's worst criminals. We did, after much discussion, make the decision to publish their photos.

Even if we had not done so, that would not change the fact that 32 black men were arrested and branded the worst of the worst. It still happened, even if we didn't run the photos. But when no one had to see those 32 faces all in one place, it was easier to ignore the fact that the suspects were all men and were all black. It might make the round-up more palatable, but it wouldn't change the facts.

So even though the paper caught some heat for running the mugshots, I believe it was the right thing to do.

Yes, my phone rang with calls from angry readers. Yes, people called radio stations and debated the decision, and displayed their rage on social media (some supported running the mugshots).

But at least people are now talking about this issue. And people are not just talking about the arrests, but about the societal conditions that push people to choose crime -- poor education, lack of jobs, criminal records that, even if they want to go straight, make it difficult to find work once they get out of jail. All of these issues were raised at a meeting the NAACP held Tuesday night to discuss the arrests.

In other words, the display of mugshots got people talking about possible solutions.

Not a bad thing.

The newspaper isn't jumping into this issue in an attempt to sensationalize it. This was a major bust. The investigation took years and involved the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, FBI and local police. It most certainly is front-page news.

And we covered crime intensely. We cover every homicide -- 17 so far this year.

We've been working for months on a project about inner-city crime that will publish in December.

Even before the 32 men were arrested, we'd written positively about two of them.

Columnist David Cook wrote about Reginald Oakley, the man who this spring forged a truce between gang leaders.

Burger spent countless hours on a front-page Sunday story, published last year, about Jumoke Johnson Jr. The second sentence of that story described Johnson as "a kid who still has a chance." The third said many Chattanooga police officers consider him "a thug who wreaks havoc on the city and may do so for years to come."

The front-page mugshots were not a one-day gimmick. The newspaper will follow the cases of Oakley and Johnson and the 30 other men through the court system. We'll also report on the consequences of the arrests.

One mother whose son was arrested told me he doesn't deal drugs.

She told me: He's not a bad man. He just runs with a bad crowd. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time.

So why, she wanted to know, was he called the worst of the worst?

It's a question we asked in Sunday's story, and it's a question we'll continue to ask as we follow the cases through the system.

Truth is, our coverage of this story has only just begun.

Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Contact her at agerber@timesfreepress.com.