Courtesy of Freepik

Recently, Murrieta Police Department’s (MPD) Instagram and other social media accounts have gained public attention for their usage of LEGO heads to replace pictures of suspects and apprehended individuals. MPD’s removal of faces from their posts follows the regulations passed by AB 1475 in November 2023 and its amending legislation AB 994 in January 2024. Combined, these bills prohibit the publication of suspect booking photos online unless the individual is a fugitive or imminent threat. Even with urgent postings, police officials are required to take down mugshots from all media outlets within 14 days. While MPD’s face swaps might appear humorous, the department is treading a dangerous line of exposing the identities of potential suspects while keeping the community aware of any serious crimes. 

Before the passing of California’s suspect identity protection bills, MPD has been known to cover booking photos with Barbie or Shrek faces before switching over to LEGO heads. In their post, MPD describes how the department “prides itself in its transparency with the community” while abiding by state law. Some MPD social media followers found the Photoshop amusing, especially through the creative use of changing facial expressions. Others were more concerned as to how the covered photos were going to spread awareness in the community. Faceless or not, these images become a problem of concern if innocent or wrongfully suspected individuals’ characteristics are made visible on police department social media pages.

The point of prohibiting booking photos from being publicized in California is to protect suspect rights to privacy. If MPD and other officers find ways to work around or avoid the direct implications of AB 1475 and AB 994, there is unlikely to be any reciprocated change in the community when it comes to the perception of safety, sense of community and protection.  

Additionally, MPD Lt. Jeremy Durrant as well as officers from Riverside PD, made a range of comments about their social media usage. Lt. Durrant claimed the LEGO heads and photoshopped posts of suspects were just to gain attention for the department through social media traction in the form of likes and comments. In a similar strand, Riverside Police Officer Ryan Railsback claims that the department is just giving the community what they want. How Lt. Durrant and Officer Railsback refer to the police department’s social media use as akin to a spectacle or public shaming; the photos of individuals on their page, faceless or not, could backfire on the department if a conviction or non-booking photo of an innocent individual were to be publicized. If the department’s true intentions were to promote transparency and community trust, it would be possible for officers to highlight crime and good deeds without needing to utilize the images of criminal suspects. 

To avoid malicious intent toward suspected individuals or those within police custody, ideally, all California police departments should simply stop posting any photos — excluding fugitives — of suspects as a show of support for the criminal justice system and legal changes within the state. MPD and neighboring departments struggling with the same issue of community transparency versus suspect rights can utilize more general approaches to describing the criminals in the areas instead of publicizing suspect images, which will likely exist online forever.