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All the News That Fits

Looking at Eugene through the online lens of Lane County Mugshots Uncensored
Mike Weber of Lane County Mugshots Uncensored. Photo by Trask Bedortha.

I have a confession to make: I’m a junky for Lane County Mugshots Uncensored — a massive, sprawling, closed-group Facebook page revolving around the spectacle of daily mugshot postings released to the public by Lane County law enforcement and other nearby jurisdictions.

I’m not proud. I have an addictive personality, and something about the site — its raw, adrenalized hit of unreconstructed civic collapse from the street level — makes me feel giddy and dirty and kind of sick at the same time.

Along with the daily mugshots, which freeze alleged suspects in various poses of defeat, defiance and degeneracy, Lane County Mugshots Uncensored features the spontaneous and unreconstructed posts of site members who assume, somewhat recklessly, the role of amateur reporters cranking out copy on issues of law and disorder throughout the community. 

The site also offers reposts from local law enforcement as well as crime reports from media sources such as KVAL and The Register-Guard.

Whenever I recognize a face that pops up in a daily mugshot feed — which happens surprisingly often, thanks to the particular crowd I run in — my first thought is: “Damn, girl, you look like hell. Guess you got what you had coming, eh?” My next thought is: “Poor fucker.” And then I blast myself for my uncharitable and superior attitude, as I attempt to channel a more spiritual generosity toward the fall of humanity.

Train wrecks in slow motion and shootouts at the OK Corral, and the teeming crowds that always ogle them up-close or from a distance, some folks reaching out a helping hand, some frozen in terror or rabid with recrimination, and a lot of bystanders simply pointing fingers and saying “Ha! Good thing that ain’t me. Sorry sucker!” Nothing quite like beholding the slapstick of another person’s misery. There but for the grace of God.

 

Mugshot Nation

Sites like Lane County Mugshots Uncensored have sprung up everywhere around the country, in part as an opportunistic reaction to the collapse of public trust in traditional news sources. Piggybacking on the rise of social media, with its up-to-the-second immediacy and perpetual trolling, such sites subvert and complicate the stodgy paradigm of mainstream media, which in comparison moves with slow feet and an authoritative, often patronizing mono-voice wrapped in the prestige of professionalism.

In lieu of a single journalistic narrative, LCMU presents a clamor of voices competing for primacy in a free-for-all that mobs up, for better or worse, around those places where people fail: law breakers, drunk drivers, chronic fuck-ups, delinquents, tweakers, recidivists and freaks.

If LCMU is a news source, it’s certainly a new kind of news source, a funneled mutinous howl from the hoi polloi that works like a form of hearsay from ground zero of a zero-sum game. Imagine if every single fan inside Autzen Stadium during a Ducks football game was given equal voice in coaching the team on field, and you get the idea of what would ensue. It might remain sport, but it wouldn’t be very sporting.

Lane County Mugshots Uncensored, then, is where we all watch each other, and where the watchers watch the watchers watching. Beyond any question of civic or social value, the phenomenon is fascinating and a bit mindboggling, and in a not entirely cheerful way. It’s like an inversion of the panopticon, a prison of totalized and perpetual surveillance. Instead of The Man keeping an eye on things, everybody is now up each other’s ass.

 

Talk of the Town

And each new post gives birth to serpentine comment threads — fertilized with equal parts schadenfreude and wound-salt, vicious, triumphant or combative, occasionally concerned and sometimes even helpful — that members spool out in response to this or that serialized tragedy of the human condition: gunshots heard, car collisions witnessed, criminal mischief on the run. People behaving badly.

Sometimes, those comment threads get so tangled up in tangents of backtalk it’s hard to keep track of the original post.

Altogether, the picaresque portrait of reality presented by Lane County Mugshots Uncensored is at once medieval and populist, a digital vision of our community that combines the vigilante justice of the Wild West with a kind of Hobbesian cyber-cynicism, giving the impression that Eugene is gripped by a queasy chaos that makes life nasty, brutish and coked to the gills on drugs, especially crank and heroin.

A member post from May 5 reads, unedited:

“Eugene used to be so safe back in the day. Well a month ago my stepfathers license plates were stolen and last night my grandfathers car was broken into. Cops don’t even bother with this they just send the forms in the mail. What the hell is Eugene coming to?”

And among the several dozen comments to this post were these:

“It’s a liberal run city. The only people getting in trouble are the ones that can pay those hefty fines.س

“I say this every day. I cry and am so afraid to let my kids out of my house. Every day there is more pain. What are we gonna do? Let our beautiful city die to and evil people?س

“When I lived there a cop informed me if someone walked in my house I have ta let them rob me and not take matters in my own hands to call cops and wait for them to get therer? Kiss my what? Lao I’ll take my chances with a jury on that one ..... crazy!س

زHeroin, meth, transient central, justice system that does not care about property crime.....that’s why it is the way it is.س

“Scare tactics deployed ... Screw it, if everybody started exercising their 2A right and starting killing these criminals, it might be less appealing to commit crimes, especially crimes of a violent nature...س

“Liberalism destroys everything and everyone it touches.س

“explain to me how everything is the liberals fault it’s either the Mexicans or liberals you right wing nut jobs blameس

 

The Wizard of Id

Whereas traditional news sources are financed by advertising revenues and staffed by a clutch of editors and reporters, Lane County Mugshots Uncensored is run almost singlehandedly by one man, Mike Weber, who, along with the help of four part-time and unpaid administrators, plays blue-collar Wizard to this weird online Oz.

In person, Weber comes across as one of those pure products of Eugene: affable yet cautious, whip-smart and hard-bitten, a town-and-country boy in a baseball cap who straddles rural and cosmopolitan in a way that leads a lot of us, politically and socially, into a wonky form of libertarianism. He is the Northwest equivalent of a Boston “Southie.”

A Lane County native and graduate of Elmira High School, Weber graduated from Lane Community College with an automotive painting and metals degree. Before branching off and starting Lane County Mugshots on Facebook in 2011, he was a member of Lane County Citizens for Responsible Government — a political activist group that fought EmX expansion — as well as being involved in the online news sites Lane Today and Eugene Daily News.

Although still up and running, the original Lane County Mugshots, unlike the “uncensored” page, does not allow members to post.

Burnt out on politics and the hard work it takes maintaining a daily news site, Weber, now 52, says he next started Lane County Mugshots Uncensored in 2014 as something of a hobby, with the idea that in his spare time he’d be administering a site that could serve as a kind of local crime watch — a place where average citizens could at once observe and participate in a dialogue about the underbelly of the social politics of Eugene, Springfield and broader Lane County.

“My hope in putting the mugshots out originally was that this area would see the crime, put a face to it,” he says. “We were hoping to show the community what’s going on. We thought it would be a good community service, but it became obvious that it was a guilty pleasure that people enjoyed.”

Weber also administers Lane County Mugshots: Lost and Found, a page for “posting lost and found pets, farm animals and items,” as well as Oregon Crime News, a website that posts mugshots from around the state as well as other criminal events and notices.

Weber says he doesn’t profit from any of these pages or sites, which he typically spends his after-work hours administering and updating. One thing he says he’s never done and never will do, unlike many such sites around the country, is charge people to have their mugshots taken down — a form of online extortion that has led to protective legislation nationwide, including in Oregon (HB 3467, which went into effect January of 2014, requires sites to remove mugshots for free if the individual charged is found not guilty).

“We’re just regular people,” Weber says of the small group administering LCMU. “We’re not super-trained. We’re trying to keep some order in the chaos so that the group is useful to the community. We’re teetering on that line between making sure people can speak their mind and it doesn’t turn into some racist, homophobic thing.”

“It’s a weird fine line,” he adds. “It’s indefinable.”

 

Why We Come, Why We Stay

A recent survey on LCMU asked why members joined the site and why they stay:

“I was new to the area and buying a house and wanted to get a feel for where the crime seemed to be concentrated. Plus I don’t watch local news or take a paper. I get 100% of my local news online.”

“People who might not express their opinions in public seem to have no qualms when it’s on FB. I find it fascinating. Gets me out of the ivory tower.”

“I joined for info and stay to remind myself that no one is as nice as I think they are.”

“I like knowing what’s going [on] around us. I feel like I was in a very sheltered bubble before seeing everything day to day that goes on. And I like that I get to see the good things people do also.”

“Because I want to see all the bike thieves and tweaker scum called out and publicly shamed.”

“I joined to see my ex husband’s mugshot. I stay to laugh if I see him here again lol.”

“Don’t know why I joined, but good sarcasm and funny idiotic replies is why I have stayed.”

“Morbid curiosity.”

Last time I checked, Lane County Mugshots Uncensored had 42,000 active members; the print circulation of the Eugene Weekly averages 40,000. Technically, these two free “news” sources are in a neck-and-neck competition, but whereas the Weekly consistently quotes the same dozen or so politicians, policy wonks and so-called experts about what they think is going on in our community, Lane County Mugshots Uncensored lets the people speak for themselves.

Last month, in April, LCMU received more than half a million hits, and Weber says he’s expecting 750,000 page views on the site in May.

 

The Roar of the Masses

Weber responds to the shit show that LCMU often becomes, especially in the comment threads, with a resolute “don’t kill the messenger.” Although he admits to being a bit awestruck and often baffled by what the site’s become, he nonetheless argues that its a worthwhile “news source” providing insight into the state of reality in the area and the way people feel about it.

As much as you might be distressed or disgusted by what Weber calls the “working class” view provided by LCMU, he says it would be a mistake to simply write it off. “Those people are bringing their opinions and ideas and attitudes so everybody can see it,” he says of the site’s members. “What you’re getting is street-level people. I think more affluent people do not want to comment on this because their position in life kind of keeps them from being vocal on any issue. They need to be politically correct.”

Weber, for his part, isn’t always encouraged by what he sees on his own site. “It just kind of proves the way I thought, that a lot of people are apathetic and negative and uninformed on a lot of issues,” he says. “When I read my group, I get the feeling that the vast majority of those people that comment, they’d just like the homeless and drug addicts to go away. People are just saying ‘kill the homeless.’ Ridiculous,” he says.

“The whole thing, all of it, just fascinates me,” Weber says. “It’s as addictive as any drug. You will watch the same group of people say some real vile things, and then stick up for a family that something bad’s happened to. They’ll all come together.”

“If there’s one thing this group is all about, it’s law and order,” he explains.

 

 

Helping the Man

Certainly, Lane County Mugshots Uncensored has had an impact on local law enforcement. Melinda McLaughlin, a spokesperson for the Eugene Police Department, says that LCMU members have directed the cops to postings or provided tips that aid in ongoing investigations. “We know we have had information come in that was helpful,” she says. “Sometimes issues have popped up on the mugshots page and then, when it gets brought to our attention, it allows us the chance to address it.”

She says LCMU has also shown a willingness to share EPD social media posts, “which is helpful in getting the news and alerts in front of more people.”

Understandably, McLaughlin is tight-lipped about any specifics regarding particular cases LCMU might have influenced, though it’s easy to imagine that every cop on the force keeps a continuous eye on the page, if only out of the same morbid curiosity that drives us all. After all, LCMU is to crime junkies what ESPN is to sports fanatics: a never-ending flow of the good stuff.

McLaughlin suggests that LCMU users remember that a phone call to the police department about an incident of concern is far more effective than sending a link to a Facebook page — a suggestion that might imply people are so busy trolling online, they forget the basics. If someone is about to get hit by a car, texting them “Watch out!” might not be the most effective lifesaver.

“It is difficult for an officer or detective to follow up on a tip coming from a closed group on Facebook,” McLaughlin explains, “and much easier if we have a phone number or email to speak with people directly.”

 

News of the World

Todd Milbourn, an investigative reporter and University of Oregon professor in the School of Journalism, says sites like Lane County Mugshots Uncensored harken back the police blotters from newspapers of yore, where cops-and-robbers battled it out in print, Dragnet-style. “There is certainly some of that feel,” he says. “Let’s face it: People are hungry to understand the challenges of public safety in their communities.”

Perhaps surprisingly, considering his status as an established journalist, Milbourn has a generally positive view about renegade sites like LCMU. Unlike more traditional news outlets, which require a considerable budget, mugshot sites are relatively cheap and easy to run. “It’s really pretty economical to put out information in this way,” he says.

“As a journalist myself, I’m always in favor of more free speech, more comments, more people discussing these issues,” Milbourn says. “The main thing is, what’s the context here? How can we move the discussion on public safety forward in a way that helps us really understand the complexity of the problem?”

It’s not an easy problem to solve, Milbourn suggests. “We’re in this moment of experimentation in trying to figure out what this new phase is going to look like,” he says of the current state of journalism, where decades of budget and staff cuts have led media outlets away from more hard-hitting, Watergate-style investigative reporting.

Weber says sites like LCMU are “the future of news,” in that they are unfiltered sources of events happening in real time. He admits that eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable; and yet, thanks to the collective nature of the site, he sees a lot of policing of information among the members, especially whenever someone posts something that is straight-up false.

Weber, who refers to himself as an “accidental journalist, calls LCMU a “death pit where people can battle it out” in ongoing discussions about the nature of drug addiction, the pros and cons of gun ownership, the causes and solutions of homelessness, etc., etc.

 

 

The Punchline

“It can have value,” Weber says about Lane County Mugshots Uncensored. “You can leave, or you can stay and read this and understand that it’s a slice of your own community. It’s a slice of what’s going on here. It may be vile, but this is what your community thinks.”

He continues: “If you don’t like what they’re saying, don’t blame me. This group is your community. As a whole, when you put these comments in a bowl, you’re looking at what a majority of people thinks. This is what you’re up against.”

The talk isn’t pretty on LCMU, Weber suggests, but it’s real. Concern and contempt collide in rough and rude language that speaks to the current zeitgeist. Look away at your own risk. These are your neighbors. This is your city.

The establishment liberals and high-minded progressives in Eugene who are wringing their hands and wondering what to do about the Trump phenomenon would do well to quit tilting at windmills and take a look at Lane County Mugshots Uncensored, where the other half tends to pipe up — that disenfranchised and angry half of the population that the snobby glitterati of Eugene consistently fails to recognize, or even see. 

The people who populate LCMU are, largely though hardly exclusively, those “deplorables” Hillary Clinton so grotesquely called out during her campaign, pointing to a catastrophic division at the core of our politics no amount of policy talk will stitch up. Eugene, which considers itself such a bastion of West Coast liberalism, would do well to realize that the political sentiments of Pennsylvania and Kentucky aren’t as far away as some of us would love to believe.

Weber says that, from his perspective, the social and political situation in Eugene has gotten worse over the years. “I think a lot of these people are frustrated,” he says of site members. 

There’s a strong tendency for comment threads to devolve into shouting matches over national politics. “There’s a lot of anger out there. I think politics and the presidency is out of control. It’s so undignified,” Weber says. “People just want to argue about Trump. This whole thing has just become such a joke. If you think about it, if you’re for Trump, your joke’s just different.”

The level of fear, despair and anger revealed on LCMU seems at once to reflect reality and somehow reinforce and amplify a particularly grim vision of it, creating a feedback loop that seems, at times, ready to ignite into mob violence. If faith in politics and faith in law enforcement are declining, the fact that ordinary citizens are taking matters into their own hands is understandable, if a bit frightening.

On the upside, LCMU’s real-time posts offer immediate access to situations with real impact, as when an accident jams up traffic or an ongoing emergency creates a public-safety threat.

For instance, when an armed man with a gun was reported running loose in west Eugene the evening of May 3, causing a major police lockdown, several Facebook posts updated residents almost immediately. But when I turned for more information to a local news channel, they were running an interview with the University of Oregon golf coach and a weather update. Cut to commercial.

The downside, however, is not to be ignored, because the snake of discontent tends to eat its own tail. The phrase “taking the law into your own hands” rarely has positive connotations. We are a community whose citizens are armed to the teeth. Judging from the evidence of LCMU, we are also angry, scared, cynical and itching for a fight.

On the advent of the 25th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, let us not fail to recall that many African-Americans frustrated over perceived racial bias in the Rodney King verdict turned their lethal anger on Korean-Americans in their neighborhoods. People died. And then, as coverage of the verdict and riots hit the airwaves, smaller riots spread across the country. For a while, it looked like civil war might erupt.

To all appearances, the powder keg of public discontent is a lot closer to ignition than it was in 1992. It’s not hard to imagine that the fear and loathing that is often evident on Lane County Mugshots Uncensored could, given a proper spark, turn into a very unregulated militia hitting the streets. And then, posted and reposted in real time, escalating from there.