Editorial: Release booking photographs

Because jail mugshots aren’t open records under state law, the sheriff’s office gets to arbitrarily decide whose photos are made public.

The approach the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office takes in releasing booking photos is arbitrary at best and benefits no one involved — not law enforcement, not the accused, not the victim and especially not the public.

State law does not prevent the sheriff’s office from releasing photos of those booked into jail, but state law does not require it either. About half the time that the Lawrence Journal-World requests a photo of a person charged with a crime, the request is denied. About half the time, the photo is provided.

The most common reason given for withholding a photo is that the case is still under investigation. In cases involving sexual assault, the sheriff’s office might withhold a photo of the accused in order to protect the victim, said Sgt. Kristen Channel, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office.

Channel argued that photos would help a broader group of people figure out the victim because some people don’t know the perpetrator by name but do know the perpetrator by sight.

That doesn’t clarify why the sheriff’s office released the photo of Edwin E. Wasson of Baldwin City, who pleaded guilty in August to raping two children over a period of years, but refused to release the photo of James M. Fletcher of Lawrence who was convicted in August of multiple counts of aggravated indecent liberties with a child.

Andrew L. Tribble was arrested and charged in August with 12 felony counts of rape, aggravated criminal sodomy, aggravated indecent liberties and criminal sodomy against a child victim. Tribble is a former city employee who has, in recent years, been involved in helping organize and coach youth sports in Lawrence. The release of Tribble’s photo would seem to be of significant public interest, and perhaps could lead to more leads for law enforcement, but the sheriff’s office has refused to provide his photo. Tribble’s name, age and criminal charges have been released, but the sheriff’s office argues that releasing the booking photo of the accused could tip the scales in identifying the victim.

The sheriff’s office policy on booking photos is subjective and ripe to be abused. That’s not fair to those accused and charged with crimes, and it’s not fair to the public, which deserves better than bureaucrats randomly deciding some photos are public and some aren’t.

State law is clear — the names of persons arrested, the nature of charges against them and rosters of jail inmates are all open records. But mugshots from jail booking photos are left to the discretion of sheriff’s offices. That means that in some counties — like Shawnee County — all booking photos are publicly available, and in some counties — like Douglas County — they aren’t.

The Legislature could solve this by making jail booking photos open records. The arguments of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office notwithstanding, there is no downside for the Legislature. When faced with a choice of openness or secrecy, no government has ever gone wrong by choosing the former.