Police Photo Files Foster Fuzzy Ethics : Dubious Practice Is Rife With Opportunities for Abuse

A picture is worth a thousand words, but it also can be a very troublesome shorthand.

In their zeal to combat Orange County's gang activities, a number of local police departments have been collecting photographs of young people, even without evidence or reason to believe that they have been involved in criminal behavior.

Many departments defend the practice as necessary to anticipating gang activities and cracking down on crime. Police understandably feel overmatched and want to allocate their best resources to anti-gang efforts, especially using the investigative tools that will help them work cooperatively with other law enforcement agencies. On the face of it, photos seem to fill the bill in building reference materials on gangs, and it is somehow more justifiable in some law enforcement circles to assume everything is OK if youngsters do not specifically object to having their pictures taken.

But the problems inherent in this approach are evident in the lawsuit filed last month by a Tustin High School honor student, Quyen Pham, 16, against the Garden Grove Police Department. She is seeking a halt to the practice and the return of photographs of herself and two girlfriends taken by police after they left a Garden Grove cafe and were waiting for a ride home.

In instances like this, despite police claims of going over a "mental checklist" before taking photos, youngsters who may be guilty of nothing more than gathering for a moonlight barbecue have had their pictures taken for the dossier.

The problem is complicated by the fact that many departments are only beginning to get to know minority communities. Often they lack the very close knowledge that would make it possible for them to use photographs wisely instead of casting an overly broad net.

It is one thing to say that only the wrongdoers will be weeded out, but many departments are not sufficiently familiar with the minority communities they are supposed to serve to really know who is who. The effect can be to undo the aims of community policing, which as a national trend in law enforcement is designed to put police in closer touch with neighborhoods, not drive a wedge between those wearing a badge and those walking the streets. Such photographing can aggravate suspicions at precisely the time when efforts are being made to improve relationships between police and minority communities.

Anti-gang strategies must aim to build more intimate knowledge of neighborhoods, not foster alienation, and they must be carried out with the cooperation of law-abiding members of all our diverse communities. In instances where it may be a police officer's word against that of a young person, many youngsters are either too frightened or lacking in sophistication to withhold their permission to be photographed. The possibilities for abuse are ever present. Photo files make possible the full range of racial stereotyping.

Photographing at best must have very limited application and be used only when affected communities know clearly the rules under which police operate. A picture can be more dangerous than a thousand words if it leads to over-generalizations, snap judgments and the abridgment of civil liberties of young Orange County residents.

Ultimately, nobody should be comfortable in a nation where a young woman was told by police that she should not bother coming to a particular city if she wanted to avoid such problems. Clearly, we cannot have our own children under a cloud of suspicion merely for being out and about in a free society.

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