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October 21, 2018
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Nike shirts spark outrage toward sheriff’s office

Roberts explains, apologizes after activist alleges discrimination

By Caitlan Butler
This article was published October 11, 2018 at 8:09 p.m.

The Union County Sheriff’s Office drew criticism Wednesday evening after writer and civil rights activist Shaun King posted on Twitter and Facebook that the department was forcing inmates to wear a Nike shirt in their mugshots in order to mock NFL player and civil rights activist Colin Kaepernick.

The original tweet from @shaunking had reached almost 7,000 retweets by Thursday evening. The original Facebook post had over 5,000 comments and over 28,000 shares.

The tweet stated: “The Sheriff in Union County, Arkansas is putting Nike t-shirts on people they arrest and making them wear them during mug shots. Source says it is to mock Nike and Colin Kaepernick. Disgusting.” The tweet included a photo collage of 18 inmates at the Union County Jail wearing three different Nike branded T-shirts.

At around 9 p.m. Wednesday night, all inmate photos on the online jail roster maintained by the UCSO were taken down. In the photo shared by King, various inmates can be seen wearing three different Nike shirts.

One shirt is a plain black T-shirt with a Nike swoosh on the left shoulder. That shirt can be seen in mugshots dating back through July, about two months before the Sept. 3 announcement of Kaepernick’s deal with Nike to be featured in their 30th anniversary “Just Do It” ad campaign.

A black T-shirt that says Nike Athletics in the center, with the Nike swoosh below, is also featured in the photo collage. That shirt began appearing on the jail roster around Sept. 15.

The third shirt is a blue Nike Air T-shirt, which Union County Sheriff Ricky Roberts said is what the man wearing it was wearing when he was booked into the jail. It is only seen once in the photo collage, while the plain shirt with the Nike swoosh can be seen five times and the Nike Athletics shirt is being worn by 12 of the inmates.

Roberts said Thursday that the shirts were all part of a lost and found box of clothing kept at the jail, which is made up of clothing that released inmates leave behind when they get out of jail.

“Sometimes people get excited and they want to leave, and they may leave a T-shirt that they came in here with or, you know, we’ve got several jackets back there … They leave things behind and we just throw it in a lost and found and when people leave that may have came in that didn’t have proper attire – may not have had a T-shirt, may not have had a pair of pants on – then we go to this box and we say ‘is there anything in here that will fit you?’” Roberts said. “It’s an accumulation of a lot of things over the years and it’s just there.”

Roberts said there were only two reasons an inmate would be asked to wear a shirt from the lost and found box: if they were “not properly attired,” or if they were already wearing their striped jail uniform before their mugshot was taken. He said shirtless people, scantily clad people or someone wearing something featuring vulgarity would qualify as not having appropriate attire.

“(Shirts from the lost and found box aren’t) used everyday. It’s used, maybe a Monday this week and a Thursday the next week,” Roberts said. “I think that’s what some of this blow up is, is they think we put everybody that comes through that back door in this shirt, and that’s not the case. That’s not true.”

Roberts said those that are wearing their jail uniforms are offered shirts to wear over it in order to preserve the inmates dignity. He said so that inmates are not seen as guilty just for having been arrested, officers offer them T-shirts to wear over their jail uniforms so they will not be deemed guilty in the court of public opinion before their day in actual court.

Roberts denied the allegation that inmates were forced to wear any T-shirts for their mugshots. He said that if an inmate declines to wear a T-shirt over their jail uniform, their photo will typically not be posted on the jail roster. Additionally, he said there were other T-shirts in the lost and found box that inmates could have chosen, including a Browning T-shirt.

“The taxpayers of Union County have not paid any money for any of the shirts that were used over the years for this purpose,” Roberts said.

The UCSO did purchase two grey T-shirts last night, which have been implemented as replacements for the shirts that were in the lost and found box. Roberts said the cost was between $5 and $10 for those shirts. He said the lost and found shirts have been thrown away and will not be offered for inmates’ mugshots any longer.

Roberts said they must be careful with the shirts they offer inmates, as some colors have been linked to organizations like gangs.

Comments online suggested that in the past, inmates on the online jail roster have had mugshots that showed them shirtless, in jail jumpsuits or otherwise dressed in a way which the UCSO now claims are inappropriate.

Roberts said that of the 193 inmates that would have appeared on the jail roster Wednesday night (the sum total of all inmates housed at the jail that night), one man appeared without his shirt on, which Roberts attributed to a mistake.

Roberts said the dress code policy for mugshots is now in the process of being codified into a cohesive set of standard rules.

“It started yesterday, (when) this issue was brought to us – ‘what do we need to do to correct it?’” Roberts said.

He said he does not book inmates into the jail. Detention officers at the jail are responsible for the processing and photographing of the inmates.

Detention officer James Goode described the process for booking an inmate. He said that once someone is arrested, they will be brought to the jail. At that point, the inmate will be searched; afterwards, an officer will interview the inmate about their basic biographical information, as well as enter the person’s charges into the jail’s system.

The inmate will then be photographed for their mugshot, Goode said. After that, they are fingerprinted, given their jail uniform and taken to a cell. Roberts said mugshots are required for inmates, because the record follows them throughout the court proceedings they go through after arrest.

“We all may change a tire on a car and we all may do it differently, but the end result is: we changed the tire. That’s the way it is with booking officers. We have 35 employees that work back there, and do all 35 employees book somebody in the same? No. Some (are) going to be different,” Roberts said, explaining why some inmates have their jail uniforms on before their mugshot is taken.

Roberts said that around 9 p.m. Wednesday, he and other jail and UCSO officials met at the facility to talk about King’s allegations. He said they conducted an internal investigation to determine whether there was a pattern of inmates wearing the Nike shirts after being processed by a particular booking officer or shift of booking officers. He said the mugshots were taken during different shifts, with different officers and that there was no clear pattern indicating that anyone forced inmates to wear the Nike shirts.

“We looked at the overall picture as ‘Do we have somebody that is targeting our inmates?’ … But it’s not. It’s a blanket. I have African-Americans, I have whites, I have males, I have females that are booking folks in and taking these pictures. And it’s not to a specific group or anything,” Roberts said.

That is also when he made the decision to suspend the inmate mugshots featured on the jail roster. Roberts said he knew when they removed the photos that it would seem suspicious to some, but said their intentions were good.

“We thought that, well, if it’s offending this many people, maybe we need to take it down just to look at it,” Roberts said. “We’re not trying to hide anything. It will be back up (Thursday) afternoon.”

Inmates at the jail Thursday were given the option to retake their mugshots wearing the new grey T-shirts over their jail uniforms. Roberts said the inmates will now be asked to tuck the collar of the grey shirt around whatever they are wearing underneath it so their jail uniforms will not be visible at all underneath.

Roberts said he has not seen the Nike commercial that features Kaepernick. He said he himself has a closet full of Nike attire. He said he has seen instances of police brutality where he believes the officer was at fault, such as the case of former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, who was convicted of second-degree murder in the shooting of Laquan McDonald earlier this month.

“It’s obvious, one, that the young man was not a direct threat to him. The young man was walking and he was veering away from him, but yet the officer, on the stand, said ‘he was lunging toward me.’ Come on, now. So what we have to, in law enforcement, is that we have to be vigilant in our hiring process,” Roberts said. “We have to hire the best people we can.”

Roberts concluded saying that no malice was intended. He said that at most, the use of the Nike shirts was an example of poor judgment, which they will seek to avoid in the future. He emphasized that he respects Kaepernick’s and anyone else’s right to protest and considers it his duty as a law enforcement officer to protect people’s free speech.

“We apologize to our citizens of Union County. This was by no means intentional. We’ve stopped it. We’ve corrected it. And we’re still going to do the job that we’re sworn to do and we’re going to continue to do what’s best for this community and what’s best for our citizens and what’s best for this department and the people that we’re sworn to keep safe,” he said.

Janice Bush, president of the Union County NAACP, said in a Thursday morning email to the News-Times that the local NAACP branch “strongly [condemns] the use of NIKE shirts on incarcerated persons and used as photographs.”

Bush could not be reached by a News-Times reporter Thursday for further comment.

“Our question is, who is the responsible party. Political candidates, clergy and citizens should take a close look at this and ask how and why this happened,” Bush wrote in the email.

Caitlan Butler can be reached at 870-862-6611 or cbutler@eldoradonews.com.

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