Earlier in September, the City of East Liverpool, Ohio posted a photo to their Facebook page showing a couple who had overdosed on heroin, with the woman’s grandchild in the backseat of the car. Along with their names and the police report, page administrators attached a statement saying that the purpose of the post was to “show the other side of this horrible drug.” The post was met with mixed comments, ranging from condemnations of those who posted the photo to statements of support. To me, it is clear the police department, the Ohio attorney general who approved the photo, and the administrators of the Facebook page were misguided in their approach to this pseudo-PSA.
Public shaming is not going to cure anyone of addiction and is not going to “guilt” any addict who sees the photo into giving up their addiction. That simply is not the way addiction works– it is a mental illness, not a fault of character. The DSM-V characterizes substance abuse as its own disorder. It requires medical treatment, not public humiliation, to be ameliorated. Obviously heroin use is illegal and the adults are at fault for putting this young child in harm’s way– I am not denying the fact that their actions were immoral and abusive. This situation, however, is not as clear-cut as good versus evil. Clearly, the grandmother should not have custody of her grandchild; however, the people in the photo still need help. The photograph taken by police, featuring a cop holding the woman’s head up by her hair so her face is visible to the camera, does not offer the couple any help. I worry the photographs titillate more than they incite any social change. Even the alert preceding the post, “Warning Graphic Content!” seems intended to be attention grabbing rather than cautionary.
The biggest problem with this post is the fact that no one in the photo has their faces blurred– not even the young boy. In defense of this decision, the City wrote several explanations: “[W]e as a government agency can’t pick and choose what part of a public record we release. These photos and police report are public record,” further noting that “we debated that for many hours and with his face blurred the story is lost. The look on his face is important to drive the message of what this drug does to a child who never has a say. We feel it is appropriate to tell his story.” The City says they are all “well aware that some may be offended by these images and for that we are truly sorry, but it is time that the non drug using public sees what we are now dealing with on a daily basis.” These statements oscillate on the exact reason for not hiding the identity of those pictured, including the child, and are actually contradictory. Brian Allen, the city’s director of public services and safety, later told NBC News, “As a public official I can’t blur public records and this photo is a public record. It’s all or nothing for us. We’re a government agency posting it. It’s not like we can willy-nilly do what we want.”
Piecing together these explanations, it seems they were not allowed to pick which part of the public record to release, including the faces; however, they also mention debating long and hard about blurring the faces, and this was all for the benefit of the “non drug using” public. Honestly, this just does not make sense. It was flat-out lying for the government to say they “debated [blurring the boy’s face] for hours” when they were not even allowed to do that in the first place, according to Allen. The sister of the woman in the photo, who asked NBC News that her identity be withheld, said, “The city of East Liverpool humiliated my family and humiliated that little boy. They could have blurred his face and they didn’t.”
That testimonial from the boy’s new guardian should be enough. The boy’s parents were “troubled” and could not take care of him, his grandmother could not take care of him, and we can only hope that he will have a better chance now in his new home. This photo did not help him in the least– he would have been taken from his grandmother’s custody without the image. It did not help his grandmother overcome her addiction, and it seems naive and misguided to claim it will stop anyone else from taking heroin or overcoming their own addiction. Brendan O’Connor of Jezebel.com summed up the situation well when he wrote, “Publishing these photographs and these documents, in this way, serves only one purpose: to reinscribe the unfettered disgust that people in positions of power […] have for those who lack it, who see drug addicts in particular not as sick and suffering human beings […] but as animals deserving little more than a vicious kick and to be ignored.”