Former President Donald Trump exited his black SUV and waved to supporters as he walked, flanked by Secret Service agents, into a downtown Manhattan courthouse to be arrested on April 4, 2023.
This brief moment could easily be called the perp walk of the century.
Hundreds of visual journalists trained their cameras on the courthouse door, and helicopters overhead captured Trump’s short walk. Trump was visible to the public a second time inside the courthouse at around 2:30 p.m. and, with a stern expression, again walked past security guards and police. As Trump’s lawyer Joe Tacopina said would happen, Trump was not handcuffed.
Trump got what he wanted, as he, according to recent media reports, wanted to be the center of attention and create a spectacle. His detractors also got what they wanted, which was a visual record of Trump officially submitting to authorities, five days after he was indicted for 34 alleged felonies related to business fraud and a hush money payment to a porn star.
But Trump and his supporters are not likely to treat this as a walk of shame. Indeed, a high-profile event like a perp walk may further fuel Trump’s run for presidency.
I have studied perp walks for more than 10 years, and I am anxious 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 perp walks are seen as their own kind of punishment – a media ritual that puts an alleged criminal on display for all to see. But Trump is a master showman and will be the ultimate ringmaster of his indictment. I believe that he clearly wants to – and will be able to – spin the event to his favor.
A relatively recent trend
As I described in my 2021 book, “Seeing Justice,” perp walks have been part of visual news for decades. But the term became common in popular culture relatively recently.
A search of The New York Times archives found it used for the first time in 1994 as part of a feature on the jargon of tabloid journalism. Since then, the term spread from the occupational lingo of police and journalists into the public sphere.
A perp walk happens when police officers bring a person arrested in a crime through a public area so he or she can be photographed by the media.
During a perp walk, defendants may be handcuffed or wearing prison clothing, accompanied by officers, or they might be photographed as they freely walk into court. Sometimes they run, and sometimes they put jackets over their heads.
In unusual cases, defendants try to trick the press to avoid being photographed. Former Pennsylvania State 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 charge of perjury and obstruction of justice in 2015.
Photographers recorded Goffer walking by, and some of them were unable to recover and capture the moment when Kane herself walked by shortly thereafter.
A point of shame
Perp walks are often a way to shame a criminal, even though they usually occur before a person is found guilty.
For many criminals, this ritual is a moment of shame and embarrassment. In my previous career as a TV journalist, I covered quite a few walks when the person accused did everything they could to avoid the cameras. It is the scarlet letter of the digital age, which is why many of Trump’s critics on social media want one so badly they’ve been photo-editing fake ones for years.
Perp walks are productions put on by the press and law enforcement. Some result simply from a tip by police officers about where and when a person will appear. In some cases, as when Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was arrested in 2018, perp walks are scheduled 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 instance, his humble blue sweater made headlines.
Perp walks rarely occur spontaneously. They are usually tightly controlled and produced by the judicial system as a form of public relations for the criminal justice system. In 2000, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that this procedure is a legitimate way of informing the press and public of police activity. In this case, a New York doorman arrested for alleged theft of an apartment tenant’s belongings sued New York City and the police department after he was forced to do a perp walk. He said it violated his rights.
Orchestrating a perp walk for the former president, however, is not likely to satisfy the yearnings of those who want so badly to see him punished for his alleged crime.
Trump knows how to play to the camera and create his own media events. This is why he was prepared to appear in New York as a show of defiance against criminal charges stemming from his alleged hush money payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels.
A positive spin
In 2014, I researched the way then-Gov. Rick Perry of Texas handled his perp walk and mug shot in Travis County. Perry was charged with overstepping his powers by defunding an integrity unit.
Perry held a rally outside the courthouse before walking in and shaking hands with onlookers en route to the booking room. He then flashed an ironic smile for his mug shot. Not only did Perry not shrink from the ritual, he won the visual moment in the court of public opinion. All charges against him were eventually dismissed.
I think a politician like Trump most fears being forgotten or ignored. His opponents may want to see him humiliated, but they should keep in mind that his first courthouse appearance likely energized him.
Editor’s note: This article was updated April 4, 2023, with Trump arriving at the courthouse.