Last week, the city of East Liverpool, Ohio, uploaded a pair of photographs to Facebook, taken of an adult couple nodding off on heroin with a 4-year-old child in the back of their car, along with the police report from the incident. The city presented it as a morality tale: “We feel it necessary to show the other side of this horrible drug,” the Facebook post reads. “We feel we need to be a voice for the children caught up in this horrible mess. This child can’t speak for himself but we are hopeful his story can convince another user to think twice about injecting this poison while having a child in their custody.”
In posting these (unblurred) photographs to Facebook, the city of East Liverpool purports to be a voice for the voiceless—the children who find themselves entangled in addiction. That is a noble aim, but it’s not really what this Facebook post actually accomplished. Nowhere is this 4-year-old boy’s “story” actually to be found: The only narrative the city provides is that of the police officer who found him, in the form of an affidavit. That is of course because the city does not care about this boy, or his family. The city cares about conspicuously reminding its citizens of its power and authority.
“We are well aware that some may be offended by these images and for that we are truly sorry, but it is time that the non drug using public sees what we are now dealing with on a daily basis,” the Facebook post reads. “The poison known as heroin has taken a strong grip on many communities not just ours, the difference is we are willing to fight this problem until it’s gone and if that means we offend a few people along the way we are prepared to deal with that.” How, precisely, does sharing this single data-point to Facebook, devoid of context, enhance anyone’s understanding of the heroin epidemic? It does not—but again, it is not actually supposed to.
This post—the photographs, the documents—purport to be a tableau of misery, but that child’s misery existed a long time before that photograph was taken and shared, and will continue long after people stop sharing it on their Facebook pages, amended with their own outraged, tearful, or otherwise smarmy commentary. He’s gone to live with his great-aunt and great-uncle in South Carolina, NBC News reported on Tuesday, and his grandmother, Rhonda Pasek—the woman in the front passenger seat—is awaiting trial on charges of endangering a child and public intoxication. She’d been granted custody of the child just six weeks earlier, after a two-year-long legal battle.
“The city of East Liverpool humiliated my family and humiliated that little boy,” Pasek’s sister said. “They could have blurred his face and they didn’t. And now they’re taking him away from my sister. I’m not condoning what Rhonda done, but what they did to her and what they’re doing to her grandson is too much.” The city of East Liverpool is offering no apologies—neither for posting the photograph nor for posting it in an unaltered form. “As a public official I can’t blur public records and this photo is a public record,” Brian Allen, the city’s director of public services and safety, told NBC News. “It’s all or nothing for us. We’re a government agency posting it. It’s not like we can willy-nilly do what we want.”
Allen here is either being stupid or disingenuous: Law enforcement officials generate countless public records that they do not voluntarily make public, and the majority of public records—especially when they involve citizens who are not implicated in crimes (or, say, minors)—are subject to some form of redaction. There was nothing stopping East Liverpool from blurring the child’s face—but even if they had, it would have made no difference.
This photo is an entry into a growing genre of digital content: police departments and other law enforcement authorities sharing stories from the field—propagandistic parables that are often intended to become fodder for the right-wing viral content machine, perceived as a necessary antidote to the liberal, anti-cop media so enamored with anarchic or Black Lives Matter activists and other undesirables. Publishing these photographs and these documents, in this way, serves only one purpose: to reinscribe the unfettered disgust that people in positions of power (and those who feel themselves allied with power) have for those who lack it, who see drug addicts in particular not as sick and suffering human beings trying to make their way in the world but as animals deserving little more than a vicious kick and to be ignored.