The arrest of IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn for the alleged rape of a hotel maid in New York has provoked outrage in his native France, and not just for the reasons you’d expect. Many of his compatriots are furious that New York Police Department cops trotted him out in front of cameras after his arrest on the way to his arraignment—an NYPD tradition known as the “perp walk.”
“I found that image to be incredibly brutal, violent and cruel,” said Elisabeth Guigou, former justice minister of France. “I am happy that we do not have the same judicial system.” The daily Le Parisien on Tuesday ran the headline: “DSK Handcuffed: Photo Shock.” Asked about the images at a press conference, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the practice: “I think it is humiliating, but if you don’t want to do the perp walk, don’t do the crime.”
Well, that’s exactly the point, argue critics of the perp walk: Those walking “perps” haven’t been convicted of any crimes. Parading a defendant in front of the media, critics say, violates the defendant’s privacy and prejudices juries in favor of conviction. Especially when that image is replayed ad nauseam on cable news, often in slow motion and accompanied by ominous music. As one lawyer told the media site Poynter, “Everyone looks guilty when they are slo-mo’ed.”
Why are perp walks allowed? “It’s traditional,” says Nicholas Casale, a retired first-grade detective with the NYPD, who provided security for Bernie Madoff when he appeared in court. He views the perp walk almost as a kind of service: “It promotes the arrest, it allows the defendant an opportunity to make a statement to the press, and it’s centralized,” he said, so the media can get all their photos in one place.
But the various gradations of the perp walk show that it is mostly a tool of law enforcement. The most humiliating method is when the police—or, in many cases, the feds—arrest someone in a public place, like his office, and trot him past the media, which have been tipped off in advance. In the 1980s, then-U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani famously gave Wall Street financiers the full monty when cracking down on white-collar crime. The message: These guys are no better than street criminals. (The Department of Justice actually prohibits tipping off the media about arrests: “In cases in which a search warrant or arrest warrant is to be executed, no advance information will be provided to the news media about actions to be taken by law enforcement personnel, nor shall media representatives be solicited or invited to be present.”)
Less extreme is parading the perps in front of cameras on the way from the local police precinct to the arraignment. Sometimes the accused will cover his or her head with a jacket. But police don’t go out of their way to help someone hide. “The officer’s not gonna say, ‘Let’s look in the closet and see if we have any extra hats or anything,’ ” says Casale.
Of course, cops don’t have to create a media spectacle at all. The perp walk is discretionary. Anytime you see one, it’s because someone in law enforcement is trying to get some publicity. “Its sort of like a hunting dog with prey in its mouth posing for a picture,” says Daniel Horwitz, a criminal defense lawyer and former assistant district attorney in New York City. “It’s barbaric.”
The police have other options. In some cases, cops take suspects out a back door and transport them to a sealed courtroom. One reason is safety. Lee Harvey Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby during a perp walk, after all. A suspect might also avoid a perp walk by agreeing to cooperate with law enforcement, in which case cops would go out of their way not to reveal the person’s identity. Good defense lawyers can sometimes negotiate a deal for high-profile defendants to avoid a perp walk circus.
There are legitimate reasons for a perp walk, aside from humiliation. If a defendant may have committed other crimes, police might want to broadcast his name and face to get other victims to come forward. A prosecutor may also opt for a perp walk if a suspect is considered a flight risk. Instead of simply issuing a court summons, law enforcement conducts a surprise arrest and invites the press. “It helps them with the bail argument,” says Ryan Blanch, a criminal defense attorney in New York. “If [the prosecution] wants to argue for no bail, they can say, we had to rip him from his house.” It also makes running away harder, if they do get out on bail.
Whatever the rationale, perp walks have become as much a staple of the U.S. criminal justice system as the Miranda warning. They’ve been ruled constitutional, so long as they serve a legitimate law enforcement purpose. If police transport a suspect from the station house to court and photographers happen to document it, that’s OK—even if the press was tipped off. Less OK would be the cops trotting the suspect out, driving him around in a squad car, and bringing him back to the station purely for the media’s benefit. There’s wiggle room, of course: Maybe there’s no parking spot right in front of the courthouse, and the cops have to walk the suspect a few blocks. *
Despite French objections, perp walks aren’t disappearing anytime soon. Police love them. The media love them. And by the time any of the perp-walked suspects are proved innocent, everyone else has moved on.
Correction, May 19, 2011: This article incorrectly stated that Timothy McVeigh’s perp walk lasted three hours. (Return to corrected sentence.)