Reconsidering the Perp Walk

The arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn has put the perp walk under the microscope

By Gabe Pressman
|  Wednesday, Jul 6, 2011  |  Updated 4:58 PM EDT
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    Since Dominique Strauss-Kahn was marched in handcuffs before photographers after his arrest, the perp walk has been under attack.

    The perp walk is an American institution -- for police and reporters. And I find myself in the uneasy position of having to defend or attack this custom. Fifty years ago, I was a pioneer in originating perp walks in New York -- and now I wonder whether my rationalization of this practice was right or wrong.

    It began a half century ago when radio and television reporting were in their infancy. Crime was a staple of local news coverage. And, since cameras and microphones were banned in courtrooms, the problem for reporters and photographers trying to tell a crime story was how to illustrate it. It turned out that the only time when a suspect could be seen was when he was taken down to Police Headquarters to be photographed and fingerprinted.

    I  would stake out Police Headquarters down at Center Market Place with my two radio reporter buddies, Danny Meenan and Jim Gash. And, when the suspect emerged from the police wagon to be brought inside the basement at Police Headquarters, we’d be waiting.

    I remember one incident when a man accused of murdering two young women in a Madison Avenue office, was brought out of the wagon. As he descended the steps we asked: “Why did you do it?”  He replied:  “Because they laughed at my paintings.”

    It turned out that these poor women had befriended the guy when he worked in their mail room. They admired the paintings he did at home, and even hung them on the walls. But then one day, after he thought they were laughing at his artistic endeavors, he brought a shot gun to work and killed them.

    For years, we made the early morning visits to Police Headquarters to meet the tumbrils containing the prisoners locked up the night before. Some of the cops enjoyed our visits because it gave them a chance to be on camera with their prisoners and appear on the 6 o’clock News. At some point, when our consciences made us hesitate about interrogating a person without a lawyer, we stopped asking specific questions and simply inquired: “Do you have anything to say?”

    Meanwhile, some of us, through the New York Press Club, tried to persuade the courts and the Legislature to allow cameras into the courtrooms so that there would be no need to chase prisoners to get their pictures. But all such efforts failed. Ultimately, though, the rules were changed so that judges could allow us to photograph proceedings if they so desired. To this day few do.

    Now, Dominique Strauss-Kahn has been arrested for allegedly trying to rape a hotel chambermaid. When pictures of the chief of the International Monetary Fund, in handcuffs, were seen in France, there was an outcry. The former French minister of justice said: “I found that image to be incredibly brutal, violent and cruel.”

    Mayor Michael Bloomberg said on May 17: “If you don’t want to do the perp walk, don’t do the crime.”  But now the Mayor, reversing himself, calls the perp walk “outrageous.” He says it’s unfair to the person who turns out to be innocent.

    “Even if they’re not guilty until they’re convicted we vilify them for the benefit of theater, for the circus. You know they did that in Roman times, too,” he said this week.

    Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union says the perp walk violates the principle that all suspects are innocent until proven guilty. The 6th Amendment guarantees the right to a speedy and public trial.

    Yet it’s clearly a violation of the 1st Amendment to restrict the press from covering any matter. And it’s been my experience that judges often outlaw television cameras from courtrooms. The argument that this is done to ensure a fair trial, it seems to me, turns justice on its head. It’s the restriction on the access of cameras to courts that has driven us over the years to try to get pictures of suspects in the street.

    David Diaz, a former television reporter who is a professor of journalism at City College, has another perspective. He points out that crime has become a staple of local television news and the perp walk is featured because it’s cheap and easy to photograph. Diaz told me:

    “Another element in this matter is that the perp walk has provided a constant parade of black and Latino young suspects, creating a picture that crime is basically black and Latino. This ignores the fundamental changes in society, with the emergence of a vast middle class in what we have referred to as minority people. That part doesn’t make the news.”

    Diaz says that, under the British system, there’s a blackout on information until a matter reaches the courts. “Then,” he says, “there’s an adversarial procedure, no trace of mob rule, a fair process at work.”

    As for cameras, Diaz thinks they should be allowed in every phase of the criminal justice system. He points out that the legislative and executive branches of government have heavy scrutiny by the press and that the judicial branch avoids that.

    He’s right. Yet, in the case of Strauss-Kahn, the press operated under existing practices. The perp walk enabled us to get a glimpse of the man accused in this bizarre case. If we failed to do that, we would have not been doing our job.

    Lawyers and judges operate under rules and canons of ethics. In journalism we have ethics too -- not codified or enforced by bar associations or judicial panels. That would go against our independent, ornery instincts.

     A universal edict allowing cameras into all court proceedings would be a fair solution to the problems of perp walks.

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