Jim Kenyon: Distasteful Publicity by Marshals

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Published: 1/9/2019 12:03:14 AM

As someone who takes pride in being something of an ice cream connoisseur, I’m quite familiar with the “flavor of the week.” I’ve also watched enough ESPN to know every sport from bowling to volleyball selects a “player of the week.”

But New Hampshire “Fugitive of the Week?”

That was news to me — until a media release from the U.S. Marshals Service’s office in Concord showed up in my inbox announcing an arrest in Claremont last week.

James Perry — wanted on an outstanding warrant for parole violations since October — had recently been named the U.S. Marshals’ Fugitive of the Week. After Perry’s mug shot was distributed to print, broadcast and online media across New Hampshire in mid-December, the federal agency that specializes in fugitive-hunting received multiple tips from the public that pointed to his whereabouts.

Last Thursday, Perry, 30, was “located and arrested without incident” at a Claremont apartment, according to U.S. Marshals. Perry’s capture got the Fugitive of the Week program “off to a great start” in 2019, the agency crowed.

That’s one way to look at it.

The overriding objective of law enforcement, after all, is to get bad guys off the street. The hype surrounding Fugitive of the Week also plays into the hands of media who know that crime news can boost ratings, improve sales and increase clicks.

It’s a win-win all around.

So what’s the problem?

I looked up the last 10 fugitives that New Hampshire’s U.S. Marshals office chose to highlight. Six, including Perry, were white. The remaining four were people of color. A small sample, but in a state where minorities make up less than 7 percent of the population, it does make me wonder about racial profiling.

Jeffrey White, the U.S. Marshals supervisory deputy in New Hampshire who oversees the program, told me that the color of a fugitive’s skin was irrelevant. When he and others in the Marshals office are deciding on whom to feature each week, “race isn’t even considered,” White said. “We just know them all as fugitives.”

I’ll take him at his word.

Still, when a federal law enforcement agency is partnering with local media to round up alleged fugitives, why does it seem like the makings of bad reality TV?

Adding to the theatrics: After an arrest is made, the U.S. Marshals Service stamps “Captured” across the alleged fugitive’s mug shot on its website.

In Vermont, however, U.S. Marshals take a different approach to fugitive-hunting.

“We don’t necessarily publicize that we’re looking for someone,” Deputy U.S. Marshal Mike Barron told me. “That’s not to say publicity is wrong. We’d just rather do our thing more quietly.”

Makes sense to me, particularly, when it’s unclear whether flashing a bunch of mug shots on media websites for the public to gawk at does more harm than good.

A front-page story in The New York Times on Sunday questioned the longstanding police practice of showing mug shots to crime victims and eyewitnesses to identify culprits. It can “increase the likelihood of ensnaring an innocent person,” the Times wrote. “The method has few safeguards to protect against a false identification and can lead police to focus on the wrong person from the outset of an investigation.”

Anonymous tips, which often come by phone or text message, are carefully evaluated before the U.S. Marshals act on them, White said. Since Fugitive of the Week debuted in 2007 (the Valley News doesn’t participate, which is my lame excuse for just finding out about the program), the Marshals Service has not had a problem with false tips, White said.

In the beginning, White was skeptical that weekly publicity blitzes to drum up tipsters would result in promising leads. “I thought it was going to be a waste of time, but the numbers speak for themselves,” he said.

In 2018, “cooperation with media partners and tipsters” led to 42 fugitive arrests in New Hampshire, the U.S. Marshals Service reported.

I found it interesting that 14 of the 42 people were on the lam for drug-related crimes — more than any other type of offense. If nothing else, it speaks to the revolving-door nature of the state’s criminal justice system for people battling substance abuse.

Perry seems to be an example. He has a lengthy criminal record dating back to his teenage years, but hadn’t spent much time behind bars until he pleaded guilty to robbing a Claremont convenience store in 2013.

Perry gave the store clerk a note indicating that he had a gun when he actually didn’t. He made off with $270 in cash that he used to buy drugs. On the day that he was sentenced to two to five years in state prison, Perry told the judge about his addiction to heroin and cocaine.

I don’t know enough about Perry — or any other Fugitive of the Week — to say whether he belongs back in prison. But I don’t need a tipster to figure out that locking up addicted people without treating their substance abuse problems is a prescription for failure.

And as a society, maybe we could ask ourselves if time spent gawking at mug shots could be better spent advocating for addicts.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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