Lego head mugshots add to California’s debate on policing and privacy

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A Southern California police department has been handcuffed by Lego after the toy company asked the agency to stop adding Lego heads to cover the faces of suspects in images it shares on social media.

The Murrieta Police Department has been using Lego heads and emojis to cover people’s faces in posts on social sites since at least early 2023. But the altered photos went viral last week after the department posted a statement about its policy, prompting several news articles and, later, the request from Lego.

“Why the covered faces?” the department wrote March 18 in an Instagram post that featured five people in a lineup, their faces covered by Lego heads with varying expressions. The post went on to reference a California law that took effect Jan. 1, limiting departments in sharing mugshots on social media.

“The Murrieta Police Department prides itself in its transparency with the community, but also honors everyone’s rights & protections as afforded by law; even suspects,” the department wrote.

Across the U.S., law enforcement agencies have often posted galleries of photos for “Mugshot Mondays” and “Wanted Wednesdays” to social media in efforts to bolster community engagement. But experts increasingly point to the harmful effects of putting such images online. For people awaiting trial, mugshots can carry a presumption of guilt. And for anyone seeking to move past a criminal conviction, the images can make it hard to get a job and haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Under California’s new law, police departments and sheriff’s offices are now required to remove any booking photo they shared on social media — including of people arrested for violent offenses — within 14 days unless specific circumstances exist, like the person remains a fugitive and an imminent threat to public safety.

It builds on a previous version that took effect in 2022. The prior law prohibited posting mugshots of all non-violent offenders unless those circumstances exist. It also said departments should remove mugshots already posted to social media identifying any defendant who requests it if they can prove their record was sealed, their conviction was expunged or they were found not guilty, among a handful of other reasons.

Murrieta police had an internal discussion about posting photos of arrestees in general and announced a new department policy on Instagram in January 2023. The community had requested more of their “Weekly Roundup” posts, so the department said it started using the Lego heads and emojis to comply with the law while still engaging with Murrieta residents.

But on March 19, the toy company reached out and “respectfully asked us to refrain from using their intellectual property in our social media content, which, of course, we understand and will comply with,” Lt. Jeremy Durrant said in a statement.

“We are currently exploring other methods to continue publishing our content in a way that is engaging and interesting to our followers,” Durrant wrote, declining further comment.

Lego did not respond to multiple emails requesting comment.

The California law’s primary sponsor, Assemblymember Corey Jackson, said that while the Lego heads protect people’s privacy, he wonders how Murrieta residents see it.

“Do they want people, who are being paid with their tax dollars, be paid to put Lego faces on people so it can be shown on social media? While they could be doing other things that could be protecting them?” Jackson told The Associated Press. “That’s for them to decide.”

While Murrieta’s use of Lego heads follows the law, Jackson said other agencies are trying to find loopholes by posting images showing suspects in the back of police cruisers or handcuffed at crime scenes, arguing that they are not the same as booking photos. He said his staff is seeking a legal opinion from the state Department of Justice.

“If law enforcement wants the public to trust them, and wants to support them as they say they want to implement law and order, how does their active gamesmanship on trying to skirt the law themselves, help them in achieving that?” he said.

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