The Perp Walk, Redux

What would television be without visuals?  The unwritten promise between police and media is that the former will provide the dirty, nasty inside story (by unnamed source, usually) so that the latter can provide breathless, lurid details that will make the people desperate to watch. 

In exchange, the cops parade the defendant in front of the television cameras so there’s something to watch as the talking heads tell the sordid tale. 

It’s symbiotic.  It’s fascinating.  It’s great television.  And it happened again.

PERP WALK: Detectives promenade a handcuffed Dominique Strauss-Kahn in front of the cameras, which upset his upper-crust compatriots. This is one of the  most disgraceful things police and the media do. It’s pure show without substance, and yet does monumental harm before anybody has been proven guilty of anything.  And Dominique Strauss-Kahn took his place in  the parade of shame so that we can have something to watch on the news and see in the funny papers.

To get pictures of Strauss-Kahn, reporters, photographers and onlookers staked out the NYPD unit for 15 hours, waiting for an appearance by the man who, before Saturday, was considered a strong contender for the French presidency. The walk, during which Strauss-Kahn was escorted by NYPD detectives, took place prior to his arraignment the following day for the alleged sexual assault and attempted rape of a maid at the Hotel Sofitel in New York. After the pictures spread worldwide, some French politicians and others voiced outrage at the American custom.

While the perp walk has been a time-honored tradition since the Hoover mistook it in his fantasies as a haute couture runway substitute, wealthy and powerful defendants were treated with greater discretion until Rudy Giuliani figured out that he could manufacture his own populist appeal by parading them like  gangsters.  Cuffed and cowed, as if they posed a threat of violence or flight, Rudy made them stars to make himself a star.  And it worked.
The only thing lost in this walk of shame was the presumption of innocence.

The problem with the perp walk is that it can undermine their presumed innocence of the so-called “perp,” or perpetrator. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 2000 considered the constitutionality question. In Lauro v. Charles the court ruled that perp walks in general were legal, but both the media and the public must have access, since the public’s right to know counterbalances the defendant’s rights.

“It’s like putting someone in the stocks,” said Ernest Lidge, a professor at the University of Memphis School of Law and perp walk scholar. Lidge qualified his statement: “At least people put in stocks already had been convicted.”

That the image of the defendant would thereafter be of a person cuffed and held by police (not one cop but two, one on each side to make absolutely certain that he won’t take one out and make a run for it), burning into the public’s eye a man shackled, broken, guilty, was the price we paid for good TV and respect for authority.  So what if there are a thousand images available of a happy, respected, robust person to put on the screen as the nasty details, according to cops and prosecutors, were laid bare.  Nobody wants to see a strong, innocent looking perp. It spoils the story.

In response to a negative reaction from the French about their American cousins shaming DSK, New York’s billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg said :

“I think it is humiliating, but if you don’t want to do the perp walk, don’t do the crime,” Hizzoner said.

“I don’t have a lot of sympathy for that.”

Being a big fan of Bloomberg’s, and a believer that all elected officials should first be billionaires to temper their ambition, I expect better.  Don’t do the crime?  Really, Mike?  You know better than that.

Whether DSK is guilty has yet to be determined, and this is clearly not a smoking gun case of he did it and the only thing left is to have a jury stamp it “convicted,” it serves as a pretty decent reminder that shaming first is wrong and outrageous.  Bloomberg didn’t defend the practice because the cops needed to get DSK from point A to point B, and he can’t stop the media from taking whatever pictures they want to take.  He didn’t defend it because of the serious need to cuff DSK for the safety of officers, because he’s such a violent fellow.  He didn’t defend it because they have too many cops on the street and this gave two of them something to do for a few minutes, so we weren’t paying them for nothing.

Bloomberg defended the practice because it’s humiliating,  “If you don’t want to do the perp walk, don’t do the crime.”  Maybe it comes with the New York City Mayor’s hat, but you would think a billionaire could get one that fits properly.

In preparing clients for arrest, since promises of voluntary surrender are too often worthless when there’s a camera in the neighborhood, I always tell them to stand up straight, even though it’s going to be painful on their wrists to keep their shoulder back as the strain of metal against flesh bites through their skin, keep their head and eyes up, look stoic and serious but not fearful.  And never look down to the ground or attempt to conceal their face.

It may not be possible to stop the perp walk, but with adequate preparation and some practice, we can deny them, the cops and the media, the satisfaction of capturing images of a broken, guilty man.  A proud, innocent perp walker just ruins their day.  Should it be you or your client, ruin their day too.

11 comments on “The Perp Walk, Redux

  1. Dan

    The way to end the perp walk is to characterize it as too nice to the perps- there they are, going from the police station to the tombs, and they get a nice walk outside, fresh air and all, and they get to be on tv too which may help the get a reality show one day. Maybe catch a glimpse of a loved one for a second or two. They don’t even have to shave and put on a tie like the rest of us good, working people. Why should they get all that?

  2. Ken

    I told this story before, but it bears repeating.

    My partner represented a controversial local politician. The D.A. decided to arrest him one Friday morning. They tipped the local metropolitan paper to the pending arrest, and dragged the client out of his house at 7 a.m. and put him in cuffs in the back of a police car.

    But the reporter and photographer were lazy, and got there late. The complained to the D.A. investigators that they missed their perp walk picture. So the D.A. investigators dragged the client out of the car (still in cuffs) and back into his house, and then turned him around and dragged him back into the car, so the photographer could get the perp walk shots of him being taken out of his house.

    The paper ran the pics — never mentioning, of course, how they got them, because that’s not news (indeed, nothing that threatens their ability to get leaks and perks at the expense of defendants is news).

    Meanwhile, the cops treated the client to freeway therapy, driving him around the county until it was too late to make his first appearance on Friday, and interrogating him despite the fact that he was represented by counsel.

    Because that’s what the cops and the media are like.

  3. Pam

    And they do it to kids too, 12, 13, 14, 15 year old kids charged as adults, regularly paraded in front of cameras, judges, the public to court dates and hearings. In oversized jumpsuits, cuffed and shakled, greasy hair and acne, skinny from 6-9 months in an adult county jail,feet barely touching the floor from the defense chair, innocent kids paraded like zoo animals in stripes for all to stare at and prejudge. You know those evil child predators we’ve been told about. I don’t much feel sorry for this French dude, guilty or not, but I do feel sympathy for the indigent juveniles that this happens to, most without proper counsel to even give them the advice you gave here. America should be ashamed, very ashamed, leave it to those awful latte gulping French to slap us once again.

  4. Mark Draughn

    Note to self: If they’ve agreed to let me surrender voluntarily tomorrow, don’t sleep at home tonight.

    I would have thought that hiding your face would be the best approach because it denies the media any footage in which you can be identified. But I guess all they need is a second or two to make you look bad, huh? You see, this is why you want a real lawyer involved as early as possible. They know stuff like this.

  5. SHG

    Be careful about who you put into the “sympathetic” box and who not.  Somebody else will do the same thing, except it will be your favored defendant who is on their naughty list.  Let them all be treated properly.

  6. SHG

    I’ve had this very talk to corporate counsel to tell them to teach their people to prepare for the worst.  They don’t like hearing it, but when that one in a thousand chance happens and they don’t know what to do, they are awfully sorry afterward.

    As for hiding one’s face, that’s the worst thing to do.  It becomes the image played over and over, and makes a defendant look as bad as humanly possible.  Innocent people don’t hide.  And only the lowest, scummiest, worst cower and hide.  And they still know who it is.

  7. John David Galt

    The only way I can think of to end this practice is to change the law so that police and prosecutors must keep secret the names of all accused persons, on pain of being open to a defamation suit for the whole list of consequential damages (the loss of the suspect’s career, home, friends, and so forth).

    I don’t know if it would take constitutional change to allow such a law to stand. But it ought to happen.

    It would help if courts would recognize that the media’s (and many police’s and prosecutors’) constant misuse of the noun “suspect” as a synonym for “perp” is a slander of ALL suspects.

  8. pam

    My point was, we don’t even care about a child in this situation, why would we give a hoot about a rich, powerful government official of a foreign country? I mean c’mon. I guess my point is, wouldn’t there be a better example than this disgraceful practice than this guy??? Yea, I think so, with all do respect.

  9. SHG

    Your point was clear the first time, and exceptionally foolish then as now.  We “give a hoot” about all defendants, young, old, rich, poor, favored, disfavored; not just those who Pam likes. Or Joe likes.  Or Obama likes. Or Bush likes.  Hopefully, this will help you to grasp the error of your thinking.

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