Cops Turned Her Into A Facebook Meme.
November 9, 2019 2:14 PM   Subscribe

On May 31, Meghan Burmester became a meme. She was featured, along with four other women, on the Harford County Sheriff’s Office “Ladies’ Night” Facebook post for alleged theft under $1,500.... Burmester, a 28-year-old restaurant server in South Carolina, was in fact at the height of her heroin addiction at the time of the photo. She’d stolen something to resell so she could feed her habit, she told BuzzFeed News. She is now five months clean, she said, but this post with her photo and her residential address remains on the sheriff’s Facebook page as a digital repository of shame.
posted by Etrigan (38 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
The cruelty is the point.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:21 PM on November 9, 2019 [67 favorites]

Horrible practice. We're being ruled by lawless, completely out of control thugs. Policing has become a dangerous cult. I don't know how to fix it.
posted by bleep at 2:27 PM on November 9, 2019 [33 favorites]

It’s virtue measured by what you think you wouldn’t and others judged by what they did and got caught at. It is a toxic way to live.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 2:36 PM on November 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

Horrifying. The bit at the end where people ask "is this going to end up on Facebook?" is particularly telling. This is an extrajudicial, but technically legal, form of punishment without trial.
posted by biogeo at 2:41 PM on November 9, 2019 [23 favorites]

Question: where and when I grew up, it was not unknown for a mom-and-pop type store to put up a polaroid photo of someone who forged a check or shoplifted from them.
The idea being 1) you won't fool anyone here again, we know your face, 2) shame on you, we're showing the rest of the neighborhood 3) deterrence, you don't want to end up on the wall.

Is this practice alien, or followed elsewhere?
posted by bartleby at 2:43 PM on November 9, 2019 [6 favorites]

I've been here in the US for ten years and it still boggles my mind just how unprofessional people managed to be retained for law enforcement work. Back home shit like this would never be tolerated.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 2:44 PM on November 9, 2019 [10 favorites]

I don't really see this anywhere I've lived. But of course there's an enormous difference between a photo on a wall and a meme-ified image distributed to tens of thousands of followers, and an even more vast difference between a privately owned business and a public law enforcement agency.
posted by biogeo at 2:47 PM on November 9, 2019 [27 favorites]

Hell, back home we had an officer thrown off the force for showing some kids a slideshow of coffee art with dicks drawn in the foam.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 2:49 PM on November 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm in S. Ontario Canada, pretty close to the USA border and the closest city on that side is Buffalo, NY. Back in the day I used to listen to quite a bit of FM radio and there was a local radio station that would read a local police blotter of crimes committed every week and it was full on shaming of people. It's pretty gross because so many of the problems people are facing when they run into the law are a result of systems that are failing them, which leads people to do things they shouldn't. This kind of news isn't surprising. It's built into the system and it's one reason why this acronym exists: ACAB. Ugh.
posted by Fizz at 2:50 PM on November 9, 2019 [9 favorites]

Posting people's residential addresses online is also a pretty huge deal compared to a blurry photo in a store window.
posted by one for the books at 3:05 PM on November 9, 2019 [40 favorites]

The idea being 1) you won't fool anyone here again, we know your face, 2) shame on you, we're showing the rest of the neighborhood 3) deterrence, you don't want to end up on the wall.

Okay, but like.

You're talking about a Polaroid, which is an inherently irreproducible medium. There's only one of those photos. And it's on one wall, of one shop, in one neighborhood, in one town ... etc. Versus the whole of Facebook.

Furthermore, if one were so inclined (and you weren't already policed out of existence), one could go back to that same shop and make amends with the individual shop owner who has put up that individual picture. You can, to some extent, undo the damage, and thereby perhaps get your photo taken down.

Nothing ever comes down from the Internet.
posted by mykescipark at 3:18 PM on November 9, 2019 [25 favorites]

the multiple assertions of "we would never do [x]" under direct evidence of them doing [x] is extremely cop

and one of the pushback comments in the article saying another county was, instead of this garbage, advertising what they do 'to help offenders get on the right track' - i'm still wary but like that way better as a mode of social media engagement
posted by gaybobbie at 3:28 PM on November 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

To clarify, I wasn't implying equivalence. I'm interested in whether petty-criminal-shaming, at a non-institutional level, is commonplace, or just some Puritan holdover. I completely agree about a shop window and farcebook being vastly different.

Also, the police blotter has been a source of amusement in most US places I've lived. (ICYDK, many local small newspapers print(ed?) one or two sentence summary of each police response, no matter how inconsequential, as a dedicated column, as part of local government reporting duties: this is known as the Police Blotter.)
BUT...they were always anonymized.
Nov. 9, 12:21pm: Officers responded to a disturbance call on River Road. A suspect was observed to be defecating into the mailbox of her romantic rival. No arrests were made.
That kind of thing can be hilarious, and police actions are matters of public record, and there's no personally identifying information.

So this case is very different in institutional power dynamics and scale. But where are people at with the principle, of posting mugshots?
posted by bartleby at 3:38 PM on November 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

Wow. I thought this was going to be the standard "Do you know this woman/ man?" type posts where law enforcement posts grainy footage from a security camera and asks for public help identifying thieves. I don't actually have a problem with that. But this is something else, the mockery and childishness is incredible. I think it's time for these little podunk sheriff fiefdoms to get some real oversight.
posted by fshgrl at 3:40 PM on November 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

I wish we could clone Tim Cotton of the Bangor PD. Every PD would have at least one to spread best practices in social media engagement and policing in general.

More and more often, I find myself thinking that the internet was a mistake.
posted by Ruki at 3:42 PM on November 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

Also extremely telling is this quote:
“Being a Township of 2,000 residents, but with [a Facebook] following of 90,000 speaks for itself that we must be doing something right,” Officer Matthew Godlewski of the Wilkes-Barre Township Police Department in Pennsylvania, told BuzzFeed News.
It's an amazing quote. It should be obvious that it's not the job of a township police department to have a Facebook following of 90,000. There's not necessarily anything wrong with them having a large Facebook following, but it's pretty much unrelated to their job. It reveals that on some level they are placing priority on keeping their Facebook followers engaged and entertained, at least 97% of whom are not residents of the township they are policing. So while there is an argument that there can be benefit in local police departments using social media to engage with their communities, this is very obviously not that. That Officer Matthew Godlewski would say that the value of a large Facebook following "speaks for itself" directly reveals the warped priorities of this department.

If I were a resident of Wilkes-Barre Township, I would be outraged and demanding answers from my town council.
posted by biogeo at 3:57 PM on November 9, 2019 [81 favorites]

Petty crime: Crime that happens to someone else.
posted by cccorlew at 3:58 PM on November 9, 2019 [6 favorites]

So this case is very different in institutional power dynamics and scale. But where are people at with the principle, of posting mugshots?

This was a thing in my town, a few businesses had prominent "do not accept checks from" lists that everybody could see. You didn't need a Polaroid, everybody knew what everybody else looked like.

And, you know... I'm pretty sure my family was on one of those lists more than once. We were broke from time to time and I am sure bounced a few checks. I don't think it really deterred anybody, and I'm not a big fan. But nobody would know about it now, except that I'm telling you on the Internet. I don't think the mugshots online should be allowed, barring "most wanted lists" or something for actually dangerous folks.
posted by jzb at 4:01 PM on November 9, 2019 [5 favorites]

The only place that I have ever seen a "trophy wall" as appropriate was the Wall O' Shame of confiscated fake -- and bad ones, at that -- IDs at a liquor store near my college.

Otherwise, it's public shaming. And with the global reach and ineradicable persistence of the Internet, it's tantamount to branding a criminal on the face.
posted by wenestvedt at 4:09 PM on November 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

Petty crime: Crime that happens to someone else.

One time I left my car door unlocked and somebody stole maybe six dollars in change? So I dunno about that witticism.
posted by atoxyl at 5:00 PM on November 9, 2019 [11 favorites]

In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by three separate yet equally important groups. The police, who investigate crime, the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders, and the Sheriff's department, who are responsible for shitposting and sick burns. These are their stories.
posted by thelonius at 5:26 PM on November 9, 2019 [14 favorites]

Her address, mugshot, and reason for arrest are all a matter of public record. I don’t think these law enforcement officials need to use Facebook—seems redundant.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:51 PM on November 9, 2019

I might have misread this, but these are people who are accused of a crime, right? Not convicted. So as of the posting of these images, they are completely fucking innocent of any wrongdoing. How is this any different than taking a photo of a random cop, putting "this man is a rapist" in bold letters along the top and posting it everywhere in town? (Other than the fact that you'll end up with several self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the back of your body after you fall down several staircases in a one-story jail if the cops find out who printed that.)
posted by Hactar at 7:00 PM on November 9, 2019 [13 favorites]

all cops are bad
posted by windbox at 7:00 PM on November 9, 2019 [11 favorites]

Is this practice alien, or followed elsewhere?

I've seen it at several places around the country, including NYC, so it's pretty common, I'd guess.


- Our local PD used to post photos of women arrested for prostitution (and for a short time, johns arrested) on their site in a name-and-shame attempt. They eventually gave it up, maybe after being clued in that they were letting prospective johns know where the local strolls were.

- I used to regularly peruse the mugshot roundups on The Smoking Gun, because of their often-amusing nature, until I realized that a) they regularly misgendered transwomen, particularly transwomen of color, in the comments on the individual photos, and b) each roundup usually included one or two mugshots of women arrested for relatively minor offenses, for no apparent reason but that they were relatively young and pretty.

- Having had my own mugshot taken a couple of times, for DUI arrests, I believe that the quality of the shot is deliberately shitty. There's something about the camera and/or process that renders the subject oddly sullen-looking, although part of that is no doubt the mood that the subject is in at the time. When I spent a month in work release, our lockers had little printouts of our mugshots, and although my fellow inmates were generally an average-looking bunch (most in for DUIs, like me), in aggregate our shots made us look as if we'd been caught robbing a bank to fund our meth lab.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:31 PM on November 9, 2019 [11 favorites]

Rural townships in PA are pretty shitty. Being raised in one. We didn't have a police force. Surprised Wilks-Barre township still does as everyone wants to 'lower' taxes by letting the State Police patrol.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 7:57 PM on November 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Add it to the list of reasons to dismantle Facebook.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 10:18 PM on November 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Fucking pigs. Next chance I get, I am going to invite a couple of them to take off their uniforms and come and sit anonymously and listen to the people I treat with opioid addiction talk and learn about them as people with a disease for whom the “cure” is barely available and how hard they struggle just to survive and not die when almost every part of the system is antagonistic to them gaining some measure of control over their disease.

We are truly a nation of bullies and any person weaker than ourselves will suffice. I want a website that profiles cops who like to punch down on people who lack the ability to defend themselves but that would make me no better than them.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 12:46 AM on November 10, 2019 [17 favorites]

This is of course terrible.

It immediately made me think of Radiolab's recent episode on The Right to Be Forgotten and cleveland dot com. (CW crime sexual abuse.) People can write letters and ask to have their names removed from online archives of crime reporting.

And this quote.

VIKTOR MAYER-SCHÖNBERGER: And so the problem is we don't know how to disregard memories of our past. We don't know how to forgive if we remember. And so as we become a remembering society, we become an unforgiving society.

And enough people prefer that we become a harder and more hate-filled society
posted by Gotanda at 1:01 AM on November 10, 2019 [5 favorites]

Is this practice alien, or followed elsewhere?

Police blotter’ DDG search results.

Newspapers for, against.

It’s one thing to have a local blotter in print, but quite another to turn a small incident into a national/international pillory. Should local news – published online as well on paper – be accessible to anyone, anywhere, any time?
posted by cenoxo at 4:39 AM on November 10, 2019

Police Twitter accounts in the UK do this a lot, too, especially when it comes to relatively minor traffic offences. There's more legal protection here, so the posts are anonymised, car number plates and identifying features are blanked out, but they have the same gloating, isn't-it-all-a-laugh tone.

There's often an undertone of laughing at poor people, usually people who've been driving around without insurance due to poverty or just life being too busy and chaotic and overlooking it. Yes, you need insurance, but I'm tired of seeing "Haha, we left this guy by the side of the road and took his car, it's a long walk home, better luck next time!" posts from the local police.

I'm not anti-police, but I don't think it's a brilliant way to improve (fairly shaky) public trust in law enforcement. Sneering at people in the communities they're meant to be serving isn't a good look, nor (in our case) is the impression that they are acting largely as private police for the car insurance companies while serious and violent crime is on the increase.

On some of the US social media posts in the article above, it looks like considerable time has been spent on the graphics. If there's time on the clock to sit around making fancy graphics for social media, perhaps there's time to look at staffing cutbacks.
posted by winterhill at 4:50 AM on November 10, 2019 [9 favorites]

In relatively sparsely populated jurisdictions, this practice might be tainting the jury pool.
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:12 AM on November 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

"They’ve served time in prison, they’ve come back out, and guess what…burglaries in the neighborhood go right back up because they didn’t change.”
So, you're saying that your approach using punitive imprisonment is a failure, and perhaps a different approach focusing on rehabilitation should be considered?
posted by xedrik at 8:30 AM on November 10, 2019 [16 favorites]

Key West used to have a "point and giggle," column in the newspaper, primarily because the things that people try out down here on vacation can be mind-boggling. As long as it was relatively benign, it really didn't go anywhere or follow them home. The interwebs changed all of that.

Nowadays it's "Came down on Vacation, went home on Probation," more often than not, so it's serious, and they don't publish anything other than the arrest record on the Sheriff's website. These often sound like they caught America's Most Wanted in town, but the dispositions are usually just misdemeanors.

Not sure which is worse.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 3:45 AM on November 11, 2019

What's worse are all the sketchy "background check" sites that aggregate arrest records and then charge people to take down their information so it doesn't come back in suggested (paid) name search results...

(Legitimate background check sites, however one feels about them, require proof of expungement rather than payment.)
posted by snuffleupagus at 11:52 AM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Petty crime: Crime that happens to someone else.

One time I left my car door unlocked and somebody stole maybe six dollars in change? So I dunno about that witticism.
Like Mel Brooks says (freely paraphrased), "tragedy is when I get a hangnail ... comedy is when you fall in a sewer and die." Saying someone is "being shamed for a petty crime" is definitely framing things in a particular way, and the "witticism" draws attention to that. If it was your $1500 that was stolen, you (the generic "you," that is) might not feel it was petty.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 6:47 PM on November 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

If it was your $1500 that was stolen, you (the generic "you," that is) might not feel it was petty.

This is pretty gross. Most people who steal that kind of money do so using the legal system and never have to worry about repercussions of any kind.

In any event she was not alleged to have stolen $1500, but an unspecified amount between $100 and (less than) $1500.

There have been times when somebody stealing even ten bucks from me would have been catastrophic (although not nearly as catastrophic as a legally-inflated medical bill), but even our legal system recognizes that kind of theft as "petty."
posted by Not A Thing at 4:17 AM on November 12, 2019 [4 favorites]

> Is this practice alien, or followed elsewhere?

The video rental place where I worked 30 years ago sometimes posted the cards showing the accounts of people who'd rented tapes and kept them. One guy stole our copy of "Sid & Nancy" and so his card got posted -- and then the miscreant became a famous musician himself, and someone stole the card off the wall.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:45 AM on November 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

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