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Cops Use Yearbooks For Mug Shots Critics See Loss Of Privacy, ‘Demonization Of Youth’

Sun., April 27, 1997

A high school yearbook is thought of as a treasured memento - with smiling photos of the glee club, football team and cutest couple.

But increasingly, police officers are using them to help solve crimes.

“A student publication isn’t designed to be a rat sheet,” said Linda Puntney, who is head of a national group of yearbook advisers and sold yearbooks to cops - for higher prices than students - in Independence, Mo. “This makes everyone feel a little uncomfortable.”

In many precincts around the country, detectives routinely gather yearbooks to show to victims and witnesses when a student might be involved in a crime. Parents, yearbook advisers and civil libertarians say the practice violates students’ privacy and raises the possibility the kids could be misidentified.

“They get it every year,” said Anne Whitt, the yearbook adviser at the 4,000-student Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, Fla., who sells yearbooks to police officers.

The policy is causing an uproar in New York, where the police department ordered every detective squad to collect yearbooks from high schools and junior high schools to help in future investigations.

Police say the practice has been pursued discreetly for years. This year, word got out. Parents and civil libertarians were outraged, charging the police with creating a “high school mug shot registry.”

“It lumps in all the innocent kids, and they are subject to being a suspect,” said Norman Siegel, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who is planning a protest rally today.

To some, police use of yearbooks is part of a larger trend: American society increasingly views all teenagers as potential felons.

“Clearly, there is a problem with youth crime,” said John Crew, who oversees the Police Practices Project with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Northern California office.

“But there has been a demonization of youth and especially young people of color. Just because there are some young people committing crimes, it doesn’t outweigh the reality that 99 percent of young people are totally law-abiding.”

It’s unclear exactly how many cities collect the yearbooks. Puntney, executive director of the Journalism Education Association, called it “a very common practice,” one that police have been doing for a long time.

Police departments in Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta say they don’t seek out yearbooks, although a spokesman for the Atlanta police exclaimed, “What a great idea!” when a reporter inquired.

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