Graphic images of Ferdinand Villaneuva's death were not something to be shared.


Villaneuva, 50, was killed in July 2008 in a traffic accident on I-95 in Philadelphia. The five-car crash was so horrific that Villaneuva was decapitated.

A police officer photographed the gruesome scene with a cell-phone camera, and sent the picture to someone else. Eventually it was viewed by people who had no connection to the accident or to the man who died.

Police and other first responders have an obligation not to exploit the pain of a victim's family. Sharing graphic photographs of Villaneuva's death did just that.

Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said anyone who transmits such photos will be disciplined, but he wouldn't elaborate. The punishment should be severe; Ramsey needs to send a message to cops that this sick practice won't be tolerated.

Besides being morally wrong, trading ghoulish images of crime or accident scenes could open up the police department and the city to enormous liability. Any victim's family who learned that their loved one was being so exploited would have a strong claim to the infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy.

In years past, certain unscrupulous prosecutors treated official police crime-scene photographs like their own private carnival show. Wanna see? they'd whisper to an inquisitive reporter. For some, it was a twisted little power trip.

But with technological advances, grisly scenes can be captured by anyone with a cell-phone camera. And those images can be transmitted easily from person to person, going "viral" quickly and anonymously on the Web.

Officers in other departments have indulged in this macabre behavior, too. In March, an appeals court in New Jersey upheld the 30-day suspension of a Vernon Township police officer who distributed photographs of murder-suicide victims to a civilian friend via cell phone. The detective who initially shared the photos with that officer was also suspended, for one day.

In Seattle, police launched an internal investigation after photos were circulated of a cop killer who had been fatally wounded by another officer.

Commissioner Ramsey, in trying to convince police not to share such photographs, has raised exactly the right question: How would an officer feel if it were his or her family member in the picture? Or another cop?

The question answers itself.