28 May 2011

Against Perp Walks - Period

I started to write this post a while back and got distracted. It seems the point, if somewhat less current, is nonetheless still worth making.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn is taken out of a police station in New York
on May 15, 2011.
Photograph © Jewel Samad/AFP/GETTY IMAGES.

I have no particular sympathy for Dominique Strauss-Kahn. He has been accused of sexual assault and indicted on the charges. I trust that he will get a fair trial. The woman involved, of course, deserves a trial that is fair too, in the sense that it takes place without accusing her and without her word being lost in the glare of celebrity and privilege. I wish I were confident that she will get what she is due. It turns out that the sort of aggressive behavior of which Strauss-Kahn is accused is relatively common. That is no excuse either. The outcome of the trial will no doubt send a loud signal to other hotel staff and their employers. The stakes beyond this particular case, in other words, are high.

At The Nation, The New Republic, The Economist various commentators took up the outrage that French politicians and intellectuals have expressed at photographs of Strauss-Kahn on his "perp walk." The complaints are presented as being about how misguided it is to treat a respected member of the elite class as a common criminal. My complaint is that there really is no reason to treat any criminal - common or otherwise - in so humiliating, prejudicial a manner.

What is the use of such photos? They clearly set the agenda - the accused is treated as though he or she is dangerous and guilty in ways that clearly subvert any presumption of innocence. And they depict the police, as symbols of social order, reinforcing their claim to authority, regardless of whether or not it amounts to anything more than arbitrary assertion.

According to news reports such images are legally proscribed in France. If it is necessary, to prevent attempts at escape and to insure the safety of police officers, that prisoners be kept handcuffed and shackled, the policy clearly ought to apply to all regardless of status or wealth. But if such a policy is necessary, there is little reason to allow photographers - paparazzi, really - access to the prisoner. Habeas corpus requires that prisoners be granted access to family and legal counsel, not to the news media. So, beyond subverting the basic presumption of innocence and inflating the, too often mis-ascribed and mis-used, authority of the police what exactly is the point of this practice?



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