NARRATION: Parading a suspect before the media is a storied American tradition.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 2-27-99):
DEBORAH FEYERICK: It’s called a perp walk.
NARRATION: But is it a tradition worth keeping?
BENJAMIN BRAFMAN: It’s one of the most offensive parts of the criminal justice system. Presumption of innocence? No harm, no foul? Bullshit!
STEVEN HIRSCH (PHOTOGRAPHER): It’s kind of a weird moment because you know that this person doesn’t know this is about to happen. But then Boom! They get out of the car over here and I’m waiting for them. How do I make the person look guilty? How do I get a rhythm to the picture? I work for The New York Post. The name of this room is called the press room, and it’s at the courthouse. People get arrested. They’re walked out of a precinct. They’re brought down here to central booking, they’re walked out of a police car at the back door. It’s exactly as it was, you know, 75 years ago.
NARRATION: That walk, in full view of the media, is known as the perp walk – a bane for criminal defense attorneys and a boon for tabloid photographers and journalists.
The practice, sometimes called the police’s blue carpet, became an enduring image in the 1930s when new camera technology and flashbulbs ushered in the golden age of photojournalism – and were used to great effect by J. Edgar Hoover, to bolster the reputation of his Federal Bureau of Investigation.
LES ROSE (PROFESSOR OF JOURNALISM, NEWHOUSE SCHOOL, SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY): Hoover realized the power of the image and wanted to completely show he got his man, because remember, we take the FBI for granted these days, and the FBI was always this pillar of greatness, but he had to build it. It is kind of like, we’re servants of the public and we were able to get the bad guy.
NARRATION: Lee Harvey Oswald, the man accused of shooting President Kennedy, was taken on more than one perp walk, until Jack Ruby emerged from the crowd.
NEWS CLIP: He’s been shot. Lee Oswald has been shot!
NARRATION: You might have thought that would have ended the practice. But in addition to building a prosecutor or a detective’s reputation, showing a suspect in handcuffs helps calm a nervous public.
JEFF KAMIN: After more than 13 months of following thousands of leads down endless blind alleys, the detectives of the Brooklyn Omegas squad captured the man they say is Son of Sam.
LES ROSE: New York had that Summer of Sam. When you don’t know if you’re going to turn a corner and there he is and then you flip on your TV, he’s arrested and you see the perp walk and I know the city had a giant exhale.
NEWS CLIP: He had a faint smile as police moved him around the city today from arrest to booking, to court, finally to a mental ward.
NARRATION: Sometimes, police aren’t exactly parading a perp, but reporters will still go to great lengths to get the shot. Les Rose was a cameraman for CBS News in Los Angeles in the 1990s and filmed more than 50 perp walks.
LES ROSE: One of the most memorable ones is the one I never got. After a full day of chase, OJ pulls up into the police department and behind these high, high walls, and you realize you’re going to get nothing, right? And your bosses do not want to hear that. And then, out of the blue, the mast goes up and then I realize there’s a tiny little camera on top of a mast and it didn’t belong to CBS and you’re thinking, ‘No, say it ain’t so.’ Sure as heck, the camera extends and you’re watching the mast go [makes sound effect]. And then it goes down and they got the freaking shot of OJ, you know, coming out of the van and being checked in. And there was a great gnashing of the teeth. And like, ‘Really? We got beat by a, by a track mast?’
NARRATION: For New York Post photographer Steven Hirsch, the media scrum is only half the battle.
STEVEN HIRSCH: It’s not a walk in the park here. This isn’t kindergarten, you know. Last week a couple weeks ago I think I was beat over the head with an umbrella (laughs) so it’s an occupational hazard. You know, part of the game.
ARCHIVAL (TMZ, STEVEN HIRSCH GETTING ROUGHED UP, 2018):
STEVEN HIRSCH: Get your hands off me asshole!
STEVEN HIRSCH: The whole thing feels like a movie set sometimes. It just doesn’t seem real because it’s so choreographed in a certain way.
NARRATION: “Staging” a perp walk was ruled unconstitutional in 1999, after New York City police arrested a doorman who was accused of stealing, and then re-enacted the perp walk at the request of a local news crew – who missed it the first time, and wanted to film it.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 2-27-99):
JOHN LAURO, JR., FALSELY ACCUSED SUSPECT: Totally violated. I felt like my insides were on an open table for people to examine.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 2-26-99):
JOHN MILLER: The Judge said because Lauro was not being taken to court, parading him before the cameras had no legitimate law enforcement purpose, humiliated Lauro and violated his rights.
NARRATION: But humiliation is often the point. Rudy Giuliani was a U.S. attorney who built a reputation as an equal opportunity prosecutor, going after mob bosses and handcuffing white collar executives in their own offices.
LES ROSE: He helped to recreate the, the form, if you would.
RUDOLPH GIULIANI: Whether it’s insider trading or tax evasion, the overwhelming general rule is that you go to prison.
NARRATION: Ben Brafman is a criminal defense attorney and he often has to prep his clients for what they’ll experience in a perp walk.
BENJAMIN BRAFMAN (CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY): You are presumed to be innocent, but you’re treated as if you’ve already been convicted. I call it a, you know, a public display of offensive behavior by the law enforcement community for no purpose other than to satisfy the hoards of tabloid journalists who, you know, live for that shot.
NARRATION: Brafman represents Harvey Weinstein and was Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s lawyer.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 5-14-11):
DON LEMON: The leader of the International Monetary Fund Dominique Strauss-Kahn pulled off a plane in New York and questioned about a sexual assault.
BEN BRAFMAN: When Dominique Strauss-Kahn came out of the precinct, there were 100 members of the press.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 5-18-11):
SUZANNE MALVEAUX: The powerful international finance man charged with attacking a hotel maid.
BENJAMIN BRAFMAN: 36 hours of being without a shower, disheveled, without his suit and tie. You have a person who was on his way to becoming the President of France. I think that one instance changed his social status…
ARCHIVAL (MSNBC, 5-19-11):
ANCHOR: Dominique Strauss-Kahn has stepped down as the head of the International Monetary Fund.
BENJAMIN BRAFMAN: …and then the case was dismissed.
NARRATION: Criminal charges were dropped, and Strauss-Kahn settled a separate civil suit. But court outcomes have little impact on the lasting image – online – of a perp walk.
LES ROSE: Don’t forget what perp walk means, we have shortened the term so much we forgot what it stands for and it’s perpetrator. And a perpetrator does not mean suspect it means you did it. He perpetrated the crime. What if the bad guy is in fact innocent?
NARRATION: And because a perp walk is here to stay, whether a person’s innocent or guilty can sometimes be just a footnote to history.
BENJAMIN BRAFMAN: The perp walk’s been in place for 100 years. I’m not going to change it.