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Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office changes policy, releases mug shots

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office has for decades refused to release mug shots of suspects booked into the county jail.

Thursday morning the agency announced it was reversing course.

Booking photos of every person processed at the jail are now available on an online inmate database. Mug shots will be taken down as people are released from custody.

Former Sheriff Steve Freitas, who retired July 31 for health reasons, was opposed to releasing mug shots citing privacy concerns, said Sgt. Spencer Crum, sheriff’s spokesman. But current Sheriff Rob Giordano wanted to bring his policy in line with other Bay Area jurisdictions.

Previously, the Sheriff’s Office would only release mug shots of suspects deemed a danger to the community or if law enforcement needed help tracking down a person at large, Crum said.

“Things are changing,” he said. “The previous sheriff was adamantly against it, but the new sheriff has been open to new arguments.”

There have been exceptions.

Earlier this year, Freitas released the mug shot of Shaun Gallon when he announced the 38-year-old was the primary suspect in the high-profile double slaying of a young couple on a Jenner beach in 2004.

Local police departments have also released booking photos taken by jail officials of suspects they arrested, but the practice hasn’t been common.

Lake and Mendocino counties post photos of inmates booked into county jail on their websites, but don’t keep them up permanently. The Napa County Jail does provide mug shots of inmates in custody upon request, but only releases photos of people who have left the jail if there is a risk to public safety.

In Sonoma County, the sheriff and the county counsel offices have said the main driver of the policy change is repeated requests from media outlets.

State public records law gives discretion to local law enforcement agencies on whether to release booking photos of people not yet convicted for a crime.

“It’s ambiguous,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. “Different departments treat this differently so you get a patchwork of policy across the state.”

Both Snyder and Deputy County Counsel Petra Bruggisser, who reviewed the sheriff’s policy change, referenced a California Attorney General opinion from 2003 giving local law enforcement the option to call mug shots “records of investigation,” making them exempt from public records law.

But case law in state courts muddles the issue questioning whether mug shots can be classified as investigative records, according to an analysis by the First Amendment Coalition.

In the end, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Capt. Mark Essick, who spearheaded the change, called the new policy a “good compromise” between privacy and transparency. Photos of inmates in the Sonoma County Jail are only available when a specific name is known, making it difficult for third-party aggregators to data mine and sell mug shots for a profit, Essick said.

Once an inmate is released from custody, mug shots will only be available through a records request and when it’s deemed by sheriff’s official there is a public safety justification for doing so, he said.

“The intent is not to publicly shame people who are arrested. We’re balancing transparency, efficiency and public safety, ” Essick said.

You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203.