Crime Beat: Perp Walks
"Perp walks" have been used for decades, although more
frequently in some cities than others.
In New York, the police press information office frequently has
placed a courtesy call to reporters when a high-interest suspect
was to be "moved" from a precinct stationhouse to a central
Photographers and videographers would gather outside the stationhouse
to record the "walk."
The courtesy calls set the NYPD apart from most police departments.
In other big cities, including Los Angeles and Washington, no such
photo appointments are set. Photographers who want a perp walk shot
often must wait and hope.
Many police departments have made perp walks obsolete by freely
passing out copies of mug shots to the media.
But old-school reporters argue that perp walks can be great theater.
For example, legendary robber Willie Sutton, who knocked over 100
banks from 1925 to 1952, uttered an immortal quote during a perp
walk in New York.
A reporter shouted, "Hey, Willie, why do you rob banks?"
Sutton responded, "Because that's where the money is."
Federal authorities have been fond of perp walks since the early
years of the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover, who understood the priceless
public relations value of an image that showed a cuffed bad guy
in the grasp of a federal agent.
In conspiracy and racketeering cases, the feds frequently have
offered the media – and the news-consuming public –
a graphic of criminal collusion by tethering the alleged conspirators
to a single heavy chain before the photo-op.
In 1997, Timothy McVeigh, later convicted and executed in the Oklahoma
City bombing case, was subjected to a perp walk nearly three hours
before he was officially arrested. McVeigh's attorneys protested
that the FBI timed the walk for maximum network TV exposure. McVeigh
was surrounded by a dozen FBI agents. They were selected as a reward
for collaring McVeigh, a tangential but important aspect of perp
Defense attorneys and minority advocates have long complained about
perp walks – lawyers because the photos make their clients
look guilty, and blacks because an inordinate number of perp-walk
shots show young black men in handcuffs with sweatshirt hoods pulled
over their heads, like Grim Reapers.
Some compare perp walks to other forms of public humiliation, such
as confinement to stocks or the practice of parading defeated opponents
in war, an ancient custom that has regained popularity in the Mideast.
In 2002, federal authorities used perp walks in several white-collar
crime cases, including the arrests of John Rigas, former chairman
of Adelphia Communications, and two of his sons.
An attorney for the men said, "The Rigases had repeatedly
offered to surrender, but were instead roused from their Manhattan
apartments at 6 a.m. by federal agents. Later in the morning, they
were escorted in handcuffs past news cameras."
Another New York case may sound a death knell for contrived perp
In 1995, a New York City doorman was arrested after a surveillance
camera caught him rifling through the underwear drawer and cabinets
of a vacationing tenant. The tenant sold the surveillance tape to
the local Fox affiliate.
The news director wanted video of the suspect. He called the police
press information office, which ordered detectives to walk the perp.
The doorman, who was being questioned at a precinct stationhouse,
was handcuffed, walked outside, placed in an unmarked police car,
driven around the block and returned to the stationhouse.
Fox shot footage of the walk and broadcast it that night.
Charges against the doorman were soon dropped because nothing was
missing from the apartment. He sued the city and police for violation
of his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable arrest.
A trial court and the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals agreed
the police had acted unreasonably and invaded the doorman's privacy
by staging a perp walk that was "an inherently fictional dramatization"
with "no legitimate law enforcement justification."
However, the court added, "Despite its adverse effects on
(the doorman's) dignity and privacy, the perp walk might nevertheless
have been reasonable under the Fourth Amendment had it been sufficiently
closely related to a legitimate governmental objective."
New York police have been moving to the concept of "legitimate
justification" for perp walks. The department says its policy
was and is to neither impede nor promote photographs of suspects
as they are being moved.
Most journalists oppose any official curtailing of perp walks.
The Society of Professional Journalist's Code of Ethics makes these
- Journalists should "minimize harm" by balancing
a criminal suspect's fair trial rights with the public's right to
- "Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity."
- "Recognize that private people have a greater right
to control information about themselves than do public officials
and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding
public need can justify intrusion into anyone's privacy."