Tech & The Web

‘Thugshots’-Decorated Christmas Tree Sparks Anger

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An Alabama sheriff’s office posted a photo of its Christmas tree decorated with what it called ‘thugshots’ just in time for Christmas.

As many continue to find reason to feel joy this holiday season, a sheriff’s office prompted a bit of outrage with a Facebook post. TMZ and others reported the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office in Alabama posted a Christmas tree decorated with photos of wanted criminals. It called them thugshots.

The post that TMZ lists and that other news outlets quoted apparently disappeared from the agency’s Facebook page. But if you recall the notion that nothing deleted from the internet ever truly disappears, you won’t be surprised to find that TMZ posted a screengrab of what it claims was the full, original post.

The BBC quoted a report from AL.com stating the image of the mugshot-laden Christmas tree did not actually appear that way in person. Someone used Photoshop to simply add the mugshots, a sheriff’s spokesperson said. And CBS News reported the post disappeared from Facebook after the agency received death threats over it.

How you feel about the idea depends on your political leanings.

To some, anyone who commits a crime should rightly be called a “thug” without remorse. To those people, often for whom law enforcement never does any wrong, they applaud the idea, image editing or not.

If there were an actual tree with mugshots all over it, that would be just fine with those folks. Many in this category often believe that law enforcement goes under-appreciated and that criminals wind up coddled too much by “bleeding hearts” out there.

Others, of course, find it unfortunate (to say the least) that law enforcement would post such an image. The American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama condemned the tree. That organization called it “divisive and cruel,” arguing some repeat offenders suffer from drug addiction or mental illness.

Though no one seems to mention it, I will add that there’s a connotation to consider with the word thug. The longtime meaning for the word is “a bad guy or a bully, especially a violent one.”

The word came into English as far back as 1810 from India. There, it referred “a member of a murdering gang of robbers.”

But many of us know — though many of us might pretend otherwise — the word developed a racial undertone. Some who use the word thug do so when they mean a person of color.

The image from the post appears to show more mugshots of white people than non-white. We might therefore reasonably assume the absence or racial intent in the Thugshots post.

That does not mean many wouldn’t still read that into it.

We can’t control what others choose to read into what we say or write. But we can try our best to choose words carefully.

Social media impacts the message.

We see more and more examples of law enforcement agencies trying to grow their presence on social media. As someone who works with social media a great deal as part of my real job, I understand that. They want to build their followers so they can communicate directly with their communities. I agree there’s great value in doing so.

But those infamous social media algorithms often require more outlandish approaches to get noticed. To get the reactions, the comments and shares, a post really has to stand out.

I remember an Andy Griffith interview about working with Lucille Ball on an episode of The Lucy Show. He talked about how he struggled to get a line on his character. His style, he said, was to rationalize how to move from Point A to Point B in a scene. He preferred working with just one camera and without a studio audience. Ball worked with multiple cameras and apparently loved playing to an audience.

“I wasn’t getting anywhere. And finally, the day of the show, I realized that I had to play according to her game. I couldn’t play my game,” he admitted. “Her game is to face forward and yell. So I faced forward and yelled.”

Social media brings in that same dynamic. To get attention on social media, you have to post things that get reaction. Unfortunately, that often means posting things that are controversial. You have to decide how controversial you want to be.

This sheriff’s office undoubtedly received attention with their Thugshots post.

Only they can decide whether the attention helped their brand and their mission.

Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.