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Columns : Editorial

Crime Scene Photos: Show Some Common Decency

Posting grisly crime and accident photos from official investigations on the Web will hurt the survivors and endanger your career.

March 11, 2010  |  by - Also by this author

Some cops have collections of photos from the worst accidents, the bloodiest murders, the strangest suicides, and they like to show them to other cops and even civilians. And people worldwide want to see this stuff. Websites showing images of graphic deaths are almost as popular as pornography on the Internet.

Some of you probably have enough grisly photos in your collections to provide content for these sites for decades, but I urge you to resist the temptation to post this stuff online, especially if the corpse can be identified.

Just like every woman on every porn site is somebody's daughter, every bloody corpse on those graphic death sites is somebody's loved one. And posting this kind of material on the Web just makes their surviving loved ones suffer.

Consider the case of the Catsouras family of Orange County, Calif. They are suing the California Highway Patrol because photos of their daughter's extremely graphic fatal accident were posted online and continue to haunt them in e-mails and Web searches.

On Halloween day 2006, Nicole "Nikki" Catsouras, 18, squealed away from home in her daddy's Porsche 911, a car she was forbidden to drive. Five minutes later, she was roaring up a toll road near her house at reportedly 100 mph. Nikki apparently tried to pass another motorist, the Porsche swapped some paint with a Honda Civic, spun out of control across a median, and slammed into a concrete toll booth at about 100 mph. Nikki's head was splattered by the impact; the only thing recognizable was her hair.

The condition of Nikki's corpse was so ghastly that the coroner would not allow the family to view it. Unfortunately, that did not prevent them from seeing exactly what happened to Nikki.

Accident scene investigation photos taken by the California Highway Patrol and allegedly disseminated by thoughtless officers wound up on the Internet. Worse, they wound up in the inboxes of Catsouras family members. Nikki's father, Christos, a real estate agent, received the photos in a fake house listing with the mocking caption: "Hey, Daddy. I'm still alive." Imagine the anguish that he must have felt upon seeing those photos and reading that sadistic caption.

The Catsouras family sued the CHP and the two dispatchers who were allegedly responsible for posting the photos on the Web in the first place. The family has also tried to remove the photos from public access, but their attempts have been futile. You can view the photos online, but I won't tell you how to find them out of respect for the family.

At first the lawsuit also seemed futile. A trial court judge dismissed the case after the dispatchers were removed as defendants saying that while the alleged acts of the CHP dispatchers were "utterly reprehensible" the CHP had no responsibility to protect the privacy of the Catsouras family. However, an appeals court has ruled that the case can go forward.

The California Court of Appeal issued a ruling that blistered the CHP and the dispatchers. "We rely upon the CHP to protect and serve the public," the judges wrote. "It is antithetical to that expectation for the CHP to inflict harm upon us by making the ravaged remains of our loved ones the subject of Internet sensationalism."

To be fair, one of the CHP dispatchers says he did not e-mail the photos to anyone. The other says he sent them to friends only to urge them to drive more carefully. Also the CHP has apologized and changed its policies to make it more difficult for its personnel to use official photos for unofficial purposes.

But the bottom line on this story is that the Catsouras family has been twice traumatized: once by the recklessness of Nikki and a second time by the cruel Internet pranksters who have sent them the photos of Nikki's headless corpse. And that second helping of trauma could have been avoided if the officers who reportedly disseminated the photos had used some common sense.

I know that gallows humor and morbid curiosity are coping mechanisms for people who work around death like you do. But just as any intelligent officer would have enough decency and respect not to joke about the condition of a murder victim in front of his family, you should have the same decency and refrain from posting accident and crime scene photos online or e-mailing them to friends. Images sent into cyberspace stay there forever, and they will haunt you and the families of the victims.

Tags: California Highway Patrol, Cops Online, Officer Misconduct


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