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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Friday, January 8, 2010

Should Journalists Cover a "Perp Walk?"

In the US, there is a long established newspaper and television news tradition known as the "perp (perpetrator) walk."

The term is American slang. It refers to the police practice of intentionally parading an arrested suspect through a public place so that the media may observe and record the event. The suspect is typically handcuffed or otherwise restrained.
The media are there because the police quietly and "unofficially" let it be known that a person of notoriety will be brought out in handcuffs at a specific time and place.

It is the irresistible "photo op" and assignment editors rarely turn down an chance to capture the moment. This has been especially true when accused members of organized crime are arrested. Most recently, Bernie Madoff also had his moment of "perp walk" fame. But that is increasingly rare.

In the US, the "perp walk" may be going the way of the snap brim fedora with a press pass.
Recent cases in which suspects were trotted out before the waiting media have had the cases dismissed for violation of the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable arrest.

A trial court and the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals agreed police had acted unreasonably and invaded a suspect's privacy by staging a perp walk that was "an inherently fictional dramatization" with "no legitimate law enforcement justification."

In Canada, the practice was a lot less visible, partly because it was felt that the accused had a right to a day in court without a lot of pre-trial publicity. In high profile cases, there were always exceptions to the rule.

But a recent flurry of "perp walks" in Toronto shows that the habit may have moved north. Recently a case involving the local animal rescue league has given the media more "perp walks" than usual. The Toronto Humane Society has been accused of neglecting the animals in its care. The provincial regulatory body, the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals pressed charges and a number of THS officials were arrested in plain view of the pre-assembled media.

The story took a bizarre turn when the OSPCA had one of its own animal rescuers arrested for "personating (sic) a peace officer and one of perjury..." He too was subjected to a "perp walk."

The presence of so much media raises some interesting questions:

1. Who exactly is alerting the media? The police? The media relations people at the two humane societies?
2. Will pre-trial publicity have any effect on the defendants right to a fair trial? My guess is probably not since a larger percentage of Canadian felony trials are held before a judge alone. The preponderance of jury trials is still an American tradition.
3. Should this media "spin" a.k.a, "perp walk" be resisted by the media?

It may be difficult to resist. More newsrooms are operating with reduced editorial staffs. The "gift" of a "perp walk" provided by the police is a way of filling up the newscast and the front page with dramatic visuals. At the same time, it reinforces the tendency toward pack journalism.

Because the "perp walk" can be so compelling (if somewhat meaningless), most journalists oppose any official curtailing of perp walks. The (US) Society of Professional Journalist's Code of Ethics makes these points:
  • Journalists should minimize harm by balancing a criminal suspect's fair trial rights with the public's right to be informed.
  • 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.


  1. “Felony”?

    Next you’ll be suggesting these guys take the Fifth.

  2. Right you are. In Canada they are referred to as indictable offenses and in the US, they are felonies.