Few experiences in life are more satisfying than watching our enemies suffer the indignity of a good public shaming. The general public proved as much on May 25th, when Harvey Weinstein's much-anticipated perp walk took him on a carefully staged promenade across "the blue carpet," stretching from the New York Police Department's First Precinct to the ubiquitous curbside SUV. Police announced later that day that Weinstein "was arrested, processed and charged with rape, criminal sex act, sex abuse and sexual misconduct for incidents involving two separate women," according to an NYPD statement. Finally, people exclaimed, justice will be served.
The response was immediate and cathartic. The New Yorker's Doreen St. Félix confessed to "the rush of seeing Harvey Weinstein's perp walk." Emma Gray declared in HuffPost, "we, the people of the internet, were engaging in an act of schadenfreude, and it was delicious." On Twitter, the actress Rosa McGowan wrote, "We got you, Harvey."
The perp walk scratches a satisfying itch for retribution, but it's not without its downsides.
The perp walk gained infamy in 2014 when Dominique Strauss Kahn—a prominent French politician and head of the International Monetary Fund—was accused of attempted rape by a woman in New York (who settled her civil action case for an undisclosed sum). Strauss Kahn, who still remains rueful about his highly publicized walk of shame, became (in his rumpled sadness) a pathetic looking pretext for the French to alert Americans about something significant: The perp walk seemed to be, among other things, an undemocratic violation of due process.
Perp walks have indeed endured their share of legal scrutiny. Palma Paciocco, writing in the New Criminal Law Review, calls the act "inherently punitive event" that precedes and unfairly influences a trial. Her article "questions the claim that perp walks increase access to the criminal justice system," deeming them "distortionary media events."
But, in the United States, this argument hasn't stuck in the court of law. Mary Bock, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas–Austin, tells Pacific Standard in a phone interview about the public faith that perp walks attempt to shore up in the criminal justice system. When the perp is cuffed, prosecutors, police, and the rule of law all look good. She notes that the pragmatic benefit of the spectacle cannot seem to outweigh the Fourth Amendment objections often brought against it.
But the deeper problem with perp walks may ultimately be more socio-cultural, starting with its origins. The modern, pre-trial perp walk is rooted in J. Edgar Hoover's Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hoover, who understood that public perception of law and order mattered more than actual law and order, capitalized on the benefits of displaying alleged criminals—usually mobsters—in cuffs. The move made the FBI look tough and effective. Hoover's tactic eventually evolved into a standard strategy exploited by police chiefs and politicians nationwide to convey a chest-thumping image of justice.
Few appreciated the tactic's power as well as former U.S. Attorney and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. According to Laurie Levenson, a criminal law professor at Loyola Law School–Los Angeles, Giuliani, in direct contrast to European efforts to hide the accused from the press, "made an art form" of the conspicuous perp walk, turning the arrest of an alleged criminal into a made-for-TV pageant. Cops and police chiefs loved him for it. So did much of the general public, reassured by the implication that nobody is above the law.
Such zeal to shame the accused famously backfired in 1987, when Giuliani ordered police to raid the New York offices of Kidder, Peabody, & Co. and escort from the building trader Richard Wigton. As Wigton was cuffed and led from his building to an awaiting cop car, photographers captured this mild mannered and ultimately innocent trader breaking down in tears. His case never even made it to trial due to a lack of evidence for his wrongdoing.
But the perp walk can also have an opposite effect, letting alleged assailants co-opt what should be a somber moment for their own self-aggrandizement. Whereas Wigton broke down, those of a more theatrical bent—and usually with more access to power—routinely turn the event to their own advantage.
Famous people in particular turn the narrative of the perp walk on its head to enhance their own autonomy—and promote their reputations—in the face of formal authority. Johnny Depp trashed a hotel room back in the day (after getting in a fight with Kate Moss) and then used to perp walk to display his moody broody brand of coolness. The actresses Naomi Campbell moved with such preternatural elegance during her 2006 perp walk that the New York Times was moved to ask, "perp walk or catwalk"? The son of Judd Hirsch used his moment in cuffs to mention—and why not?—that his band was playing that weekend.
In such ways the perp walk plays into the politics of the privileged, further undermining the intended mission to shame those who deserve it while reminding us that some of the most advantaged are simply beyond shame.
In an age when virtually every public arrest is potentially documented by a cellular device, the perp walk (if we expand its definition to include impromptu arrests) raises questions about who gets their allegation choreographed and who does not. Alleged drug dealers cuffed and ignominiously shoved into cop cars in the dead of night do not enjoy the opportunity to dress up and pose for the act, much less beam a quick grin for social media. And the outcome of these unscripted perp walks are often gross violations of individual rights, if not horrific explosions of violence, underscoring police corruption, incompetence, and racism.
Could the perp walk—in so far as it's a supposed affirmation of good honest police work—be a way for authorities to counter the growing on-the-ground evidence of their own systemic incompetence? Every time we revel in the thrill of watching a bad guy like Weinstein suffer a publicized dose of pre-trial public humiliation at the hands of the criminal justice complex, we may be obscuring the same kind of corruption we think we're exposing.