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.
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.
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.
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.
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.