Police take 'wanted' posters onto social media, nabbing suspects and ruining lives

Illustration of a police mugshot made up of fragments of social media wanted posters.
The 21st-century version of the Wild West wanted poster has become a social media staple for police departments. (Los Angeles Times illustration)

The wanted poster on the Manhattan Beach Police Department’s Facebook and Instagram pages featuring Matthew Jacques was bad enough.

“Wanted Wednesday,” it blared in all capital letters over a mug shot of the Hermosa Beach bartender. “Turn yourself in.” And then, a warning to the public: “Do not attempt to apprehend or detain this person. Call 911 in case of emergency.”

Then came the tweetstorm, a nasty barrage of online vitriol. “hewill be caught maybe he thinks his charge is nothing or doesn’t care,” wrote one commenter. Another identified the bar where Jacques worked and his regular shift and urged readers: “You can go get him there.”

But Jacques wasn’t a wanted man. There was no warrant out for his arrest on Feb. 26, 2020, when Manhattan Beach police posted the wanted sign, according to court documents. The 42-year-old had missed several remedial classes after pleading no contest to a 2017 DUI.

But he was no fugitive from the law.

The 21st century version of the Wild West wanted poster has become a social media staple for police departments across the country. They’re posted on law enforcement Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. Some departments have YouTube videos filled with stony-faced mug shots and pleas for help in identifying alleged suspects.

Law enforcement officials say these social media posts — "Wanted Wednesdays," "Turn Yourself In Thursdays," "Felony Fridays" — have helped nab many fugitives. Some departments only use such social media campaigns for violent crimes, including murder, rape and assault with a deadly weapon. But others plaster suspects’ faces all over the internet on charges such as violating parole, missing a court date, drug offenses and theft.

In many cases, the wanted posters and rogues galleries of suspects stay online long after the men and women in the mug shots have served their time or been cleared. The result can be lengthy public shaming. Such posts also can interfere with getting a job, renting an apartment, or even having future relationships.

Wanted Wednesdays have become part of a wider discussion about whether it’s appropriate to post mug shots at all, or for media outlets to publish images of people who have simply been arrested — not convicted — especially for low-level crimes. The Associated Press announced June 15 that it will no longer name suspects of minor crimes or publish their mug shots.

“Punishment used to be a legal sentence that only a judge could give,” said Sarah Esther Lageson, an assistant professor at the Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice. “In practical terms, this feels like punishment, and it’s being doled out by police departments, Facebook, by people who share the content.

“It feels like, all of a sudden," she said, "that this punishment is coming from every direction all at once.”

As of June 23, the Anaheim Police Department had 16 Wanted Wednesday posters on its website. Alleged offenses included counterfeiting as well as murder; half were sex crimes with children as victims.

All were undated. None indicated whether the suspect had been apprehended, cleared or was still at large. The most recent wanted poster on Anaheim’s Facebook page was posted Dec. 16.

The department uses Wanted Wednesday social media campaigns “sporadically,” said Sgt. Shane Carringer, the department’s public information officer, who described the results as “mixed.”

“We use it as a detecting tool,” Carringer said. “If a detective feels like some public awareness in their case might help in the apprehension of their subject, we put it up. If they’re captured and arrested, we take the photos down.”

Carringer said he remembered when law enforcement agencies used to hang wanted posters in post office branches, a practice that’s much rarer these days.

“With modern conveniences, there are very few public places that just get visited anymore,” he said. “So this is how police departments bring awareness to subjects that are wanted in the community."

Photo illustration of a police department social media wanted poster on top and a mugshot height chart on bottom.
As of June 23, the Anaheim Police Department had 16 Wanted Wednesday posters on its website. (Los Angeles Times illustration; Anaheim PD photo)

The Moorhead, Minn., Police Department had 24 wanted posters on its website as of June 23. All of the suspects had allegedly committed felonies. Only two involved some kind of assault. The rest were largely probation violations or drug-related offenses. One woman was wanted for state lottery fraud. Two men were wanted for property damage.

All of the posters warn: “NEVER attempt to apprehend suspects yourself; doing so may be dangerous.”

“Since May 2017, with help from the public and surrounding law enforcement agencies, we have been able to capture 119 featured felons,” the Moorhead site boasts.

“You can understand police departments using social media to find people they’re looking for,” said Faiza Patel, co-director of the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan law and public policy institute.

“But when you’re using these kinds of tools for low-level crime, I’m not sure it’s justified,” she said. “The person hasn’t been convicted. ... There are a lot of reasons to be really careful.”

Patel added that campaigns like Wanted Wednesdays also “contribute to a culture of paranoia in this country. ... Even when crime is way down, people perceive it’s higher.”

Online mug-shot galleries of the wanted and at-large also can have long shelf lives, with little information about whether a suspect is alive or dead, has been apprehended or cleared of all charges, or of how recently the galleries have been updated.

The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, does not use Wanted Wednesday social media campaigns, but it does have a mug-shot gallery of its most-wanted suspects on its website, with a search function that allows the public to “find most wanted in your neighborhood.”

The gallery contains 222 images, no obvious crime dates and a warning with each description: “This individual is considered armed and dangerous. Do not attempt to apprehend suspect yourself. If seen, contact your local police station ASAP.”

The LAPD’s top 10 most-wanted list is only six men long. The crimes they are alleged to have committed are among the worst: murder and child molestation. The most recent offense happened in 2008. The oldest occurred 33 years ago.

Perusing the galleries, it is unclear when either was last updated or whether the suspects are still at large.

In an email, Capt. Stacy Spell, a department spokesman, said the LAPD is “still in the process of looking into the 222 suspects with mug shots. Preliminarily, and this is subject to verification, we are still looking for the six people on the top ten list and we are still looking for help in apprehending them.”

The issue has also generated debate north of the U.S. border. Two months ago, a resident of the Canadian city of Lethbridge began circulating a petition demanding an end to the use of Wanted Wednesdays by the city’s police service. The petition calls such social media campaigns “an outdated public shaming approach” that “often whips up prejudice and blame” and “bypasses the presumption of innocence.”

Novelist Paul Butler launched the petition, which has 553 signatures so far. He had no idea that Wanted Wednesdays even existed until his wife pointed out one that depicted “a very vulnerable First Nation woman who was clearly suffering.”

“I was horrified,” Butler said in an interview. “It was just so blind to the obvious history of First Nation in Canada, the multigenerational trauma, the residential schools, the children being taken from their parents. ... It seemed so lacking in compassion, so out of proportion.”

The Lethbridge Police Commission is scheduled to address the issue at its June 30 meeting.

“While there are no immediate plans to discontinue publicly sharing information surrounding these individuals wanted on warrants of arrest,” the police service said in a statement, “LPS will be reviewing its use of this tool, along with its short and long-term communications strategies as part of its action plan to better service the community.”

In addition to using Wanted Wednesdays, the Baltimore Police Department also launched a social media campaign called "Public Enemy #1." The goal was to get the public’s help in finding and arresting murder suspects.

The Police Department dubbed Antonio Wright Public Enemy #1 in March 2017. He was 26 at the time, wanted in connection with a firebombing that killed two teenagers and injured six other people, including a 4-year-old and an 11-year-old.

Wright turned himself in. His wife broadcast the arrest on Facebook Live, according to local media reports. “My name is Antonio Wright,” he says on the video. “I did not commit this crime.”

Fifteen months later, he was acquitted of all charges — two counts of murder and six counts of attempted murder. He was also later found not guilty of attempted murder in a shooting that happened just days before the fire.

T.J. Smith, spokesman for the Baltimore police chief at the time, said the department “was operating in good faith at the time [the designation] occurred. He was in fact wanted for murder. The warrant apprehension task force was looking for him.”

Baltimore only used Wanted Wednesdays and Public Enemy #1 designations to help find people who had outstanding warrants for violent offenses.

“We have to make sure we’re not overcriminalizing somebody ... ," Smith said. “Just because you have a warrant doesn’t make you a vicious animal.”

Wright was shot to death in December 2018. His Public Enemy #1 poster, blood red and sporting his mug shot, can still be found on the Police Department’s Facebook page.

And then there's the case of Matthew Jacques, the Hermosa Beach bartender.

Jacques had pleaded no contest to a charge of driving under the influence on July 27, 2017, in Manhattan Beach. He was placed on probation, ordered to pay fines of more than $2,000, perform 29 days of community service, and complete a first-offender alcohol and drug education and counseling program.

Jacques missed seven DUI classes, according to court documents, but told program officials ahead of time that he’d be unable to attend. He failed to reschedule the classes in time, and when he called the program, he was told the court had issued a warrant for his arrest.

So, he checked the online court docket, saw there was a Feb. 18, 2020, hearing about his bench warrant scheduled at Torrance Superior Court and showed up with his public defender.

Judge George F. Bird found Jacques had violated his probation and ordered him to reenroll in the alcohol program, among other penalties.

That same day, according to the court docket: “bench warrant recalled and quashed.”

Eight days later, the Manhattan Beach Police Department posted on its social media accounts that Jacques was a wanted man.

He wasn’t.

Jacques, through his attorney Ethan Surls, declined to comment.

The post, he said in a written declaration, “prompted an angry mob of strangers making disparaging and threatening statements about me.” He was told to turn himself in. He called his boss and asked for time off “because I feared that people would be coming in looking to try to physically restrain me and take me into custody.”

While he was gone, two strangers came looking for him at the restaurant where he worked, “but they promptly left when they were told I wasn’t there.”

The department didn’t take the post down, but instead added a single sentence: “**UPDATE** Mr. Jacques cleared his warrant. Thank you”

Jacques sued the city and the Police Department for defamation.

They responded by filing a so-called anti-SLAPP motion, asking that Jacques’ suit be dismissed because the department’s postings were protected by the 1st Amendment, the California Constitution and governmental immunity. That motion was denied.

In May, the lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount and dismissed. Fifteen months after it was posted, the department took down Jacques’ wanted poster.

Manhattan Beach Mayor Suzanne Hadley declined to comment on the suit or the Police Department’s use of social media, instead forwarding questions to George Gabriel, the city’s senior management analyst.

“You have asked about ‘Wanted Wednesdays’ and ‘Turn Yourself In Thursdays’ postings on social media,” Gabriel said in an email. “Such postings are valuable public safety tools. City has not posted such postings for several months.

“Thank you for your interest in our City.”

The ordeal left Jacques “completely devastated,” said Megg Sulzinger, who described herself as Jacques’ best friend.

“He couldn’t go into work," she said. "He eventually lost his job because he could not go in for fear of retaliation."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.