PHILADELPHIA – A group photo of about two dozen officers in tactical gear posing with escaped murderer Danelo Cavalcante minutes after his capture Wednesday in southeastern Pennsylvania drew criticism from policing reform advocates and some members of the public.
The moment of the photo was captured by a KYW-TV television news helicopter. It showed the officers and federal agents gathered in a half circle around the handcuffed escapee for a photo before loading him into an armored vehicle.
Policing experts said the celebratory moment after the grueling 14-day search for the armed suspect was inappropriate and dehumanizing. But at least one leader of the operation said he wasn't bothered by it.
When asked about the criticism at a news conference Wednesday, Pennsylvania State Police Lt. Col. George Bivens focused on the officer's hard work under trying circumstances.
“They’re proud of their work,” Bivens said. “I’m not bothered at all by the fact that they took a photograph with him in custody.”
Policing experts said the practice of snapping photos, especially after a successful arrest, is not uncommon but has become more prevalent with the advent of smart phones. While many law enforcement agencies have tried to create conduct guidelines for social media use including barring posts to personal pages while wearing a uniform or from conducting on-duty activities, experts say those rules do not exist everywhere and are inconsistent.
“There's not standards or uniformity in those policies. What we have here is a galvanizing act that might start a debate,” said Adam Scott Wandt, an associate professor of public policy at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“From a policing ethics point of view, a police officer taking a picture on the street and putting it on social media or doing it as a celebratory or retaliatory thing is not OK,” Wandt said. “As an attorney, it is an evidentiary problem being created here too. It's a dangerous practice for a police officer to create evidence on a scene and not properly turn it over to the prosecutor.”
The Pennsylvania State Police has a conduct policy covering the use of social media that prohibits posting or forwarding images of state police investigations or operations, or content that depicts the agency’s uniform, badge or other official department gear without authorization. But it’s unclear if the photo Wednesday would be covered under that policy and a message left for a spokesperson for the State Police was not immediately returned.
Photos of Cavalcante immediately after being arrested, with the police dog pinning him down, circulated widely on social media Wednesday in the hours after the arrest was announced. The photos did not include information about who took them, but they were taken inside the secured perimeter where only law enforcement officers were allowed.
The Associated Press left messages seeking comment about the posed photo from the other agencies involved in the search including the U.S. Marshals Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Drug Enforcement Administration. A Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives special agent in charge said ATF officers were not part of the arrest and were not involved in the posed photograph.
In recent years, several officers around the country have been disciplined or fired for taking cellphone photos of suspects or during police operations, including one of the Memphis officers who was fired and charged with murder in the beating death of Tyre Nichols in January. In documents submitted to request former officer Demetrius Haley be decertified as a police officer, it was revealed he had taken at least two photos of Nichols after the beating and texted them to at least five other people, against department policy.
For Niles R. Wilson, the senior director of law enforcement initiatives at the Center for Policing Equity and a retired police captain in Newark, New Jersey, these celebratory photos are reminiscent of photos taken during the Civil Rights era depicting police brutalizing people in order to suppress them.
“It is not appropriate. It is not ethical. It's really inhumane,” Wilson said. “I wish I could give you a reason that this happens. In my law enforcement experience I know how amped up police can get, but that's not an excuse to mistreat someone.”
Leonard Sipes, who worked for 35 years in public affairs and communications for federal and state law enforcement agencies, and is also a former officer, said he understood the inclination to celebrate after the dangerous and grueling conditions of trying to recapture someone who was armed and dangerous.
“The police had nothing to do with the release of the photo. It was made available by a news source,” Sipes said. “But posing with the suspect, that's questionable. If I was on the scene as the public affairs officer representing a law enforcement agency, I would have discouraged it.”