Manhattan could be the scene of the perp walk of the century on April 4, 2023, when former President Donald Trump answers his recent charge And turns himself in to the authorities in court.
Trump has reportedly told his aides that he doesn’t want to hide from the cameras and he is ready for a perpetrator walk through a crowd of photographers, police and other onlookers create a “spectacle.”
It is not yet clear how Trump will actually enter the courthouse, given security considerations that could lead to a silent surrender. Trump attorney Joe Tacopina has said that Trump is not captivated when he enters the courthouse and appears before a judge.
Some of Trump’s opponents have hoped a public moment of reckoning for alleged crimes for years, but Trump — and his supporters — are unlikely to treat it as an embarrassment. Indeed, a high-profile event like a perp walk could go further fuel for Trump’s flight for the presidency.
I’ve been studying offender walks for more than 10 years, and I’m curious to see how court officials, the New York Police Department and the Secret Service will handle Trump’s arrival at the New York Courthouse on April 4.
Normally offender walks are seen as their own kind of punishment – a media ritual that makes an alleged criminal visible to everyone. But Trump is a masterful showman and will be the ultimate mouthpiece of his indictment. I believe he clearly wants to – and will be able to – turn the event to his advantage.
A relatively recent trend
As I described in my 2021 book: “See justice“Perp walks have been part of visual news for decades. But the term became common in popular culture relatively recently.
A quest of The New York Times Archives discovered it was first used in 1994 as part of an article on tabloid journalism jargon. Since then, the term has spread from the professional jargon of police and journalists to the public sphere.
A perp walk happens when police officers bring a person who has been arrested for a crime through a public space so that he or she can be photographed by the media.
During a perpetrator’s walk, defendants may be handcuffed or wearing prison clothes, accompanied by officers, or they may be photographed walking freely into court. Sometimes they run, and sometimes they pull coats over their heads.
In unusual cases, defendants try to trick the press into not being photographed. Former Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane had her twin sister Ellen Granahan Goffer act as a decoy and walk to court in her place after Kane was arrested on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in 2015.
Photographers captured Goffer as she walked by, and some of them failed to catch and capture the moment when Kane himself walked by shortly afterward.
A point of shame
Perp walks are often a way to disgrace a criminal, even though they happen most of the time before anyone is found guilty.
For many criminals, this ritual is a moment of shame and embarrassment. In my previous career as a TV journalist, I went on quite a few walks when the accused went to great lengths to evade the cameras. It’s the scarlet letter of the digital age, which is why many of Trump’s critics on social media want one so bad they’ve edited photos false for years.
Perp Walks are productions staged by the press and the police. Some are simply the result of a tip from police officers about when and where someone will show up. In some cases, like with Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was arrested in 2018perpetrator walks are planned in advance with careful security plans for where photographers may or may not stand.
High-profile defendants are scrutinized for the way they walk, dress and face the cameras. In Weinstein’s case, for example, his humble blue sweater made headlines.
Perp walks rarely occur spontaneously. They are usually tightly controlled and produced by the justice system as a form of public relations for the criminal justice system. In 2000, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that this procedure is a legitimate way of informing the press and public about police activities. In this case, a New York doorman who was arrested for allegedly stealing an apartment tenant’s belongings sued New York City and the police after being forced to do a perp walk. He said it violates his rights.
However, orchestrating a perpetrator walk for the former president is unlikely to satisfy the desires of those so eager to see him punished for his alleged crime.
Trump knows how to play on camera and create his own media events. That’s why he’s willing to appear in New York as one show of resistance in return for criminal prosecution resulting from his alleged hush money payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels.
A positive spin
In 2014 I researched the road then-governor Rik Perry from Texas handled his gait and mug shot in Travis County. Perry was charged with exceeding his powers by defunding an integrity unit.
Perry held a rally outside the courthouse before walking in and shaking hands with spectators on his way to the booking room. He then flashed an ironic smile for his mug shot. Not only did Perry not shy away from the ritual, he also won the visual moment in the court of public opinion. All charges against him were ultimately dismissed turned down.
I think a politician like Trump is most afraid of being forgotten or ignored. His detractors may want to see him humiliated, but they should keep in mind that if his first appearance in court becomes a major media frenzy, he won’t be embarrassed – he’ll be energized.