By Tuesday, the investigation -- and the photos -- trended nationally on Facebook.
Police revealed little about the images, but they came seven months after the department announced the name of a suspected serial rapist in the quiet Florida town of 2,462 residents. The accused attacker, they said, video-recorded his assaults on incapacitated women.
Police did not connect the photos to that case. But Ogden told a local news station Monday, "We are not sure if they are harmed. We’re not sure if they’re safe. We’re not sure if they’re even alive, to be honest with you.”
It's unusual for a police department to publicly ID possible victims of sexual assault without permission, a move strongly discouraged by federal law enforcement guidelines.
Commenters on Ogden’s Facebook page raised concerns about the women’s privacy:
“Unfortunately, These photos will be shared forever because people in Social Media just share things without checking them out. Once posted, you can not take them back.”
“Who's bright idea was it to post victim's images on the internet???”
“Hopefully somebody thought about the implications of posting these photos BEFORE they did it.”
Tim Maher, a criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and former police officer, said the Windermere police have veered into uncharted waters. Never has he seen a department post photos of possible sexual assault victims on social media — an action that may humiliate survivors.
Public guidelines from the Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime backs up that sentiment, especially in cases that may involve sexual assault: “All information about the victim, stated or inferred, belongs to the victim. With few exceptions, the victim owns the sole right to share this information. Identifying information, options discussed, written notes and materials, and the fact that a victim has sought or received services are confidential.”
On Tuesday, less than a day after the unconscious women first appeared on Facebook, Ogden asked followers to take the photos down:
"Those women are safe at this time. Out of courtesy for the women identified we ask that you remove those photos and bulletins from your social networking sites that we provided you yesterday and refer to this page for updated accurate information."
The photos remained visible on the Windermere police department's own Facebook page. The department did not return The Post's calls for comment.
Though publishing the women's photos conflicts with standard law enforcement practice, Maher said the Windermere police may have had a compelling reason. “They might have weighed the potential harm they’d cause against the harm they’re trying to avoid," he said. "They may have thought the women were still in danger.”
Kristen Houser, spokesperson for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said she can’t say whether the police made the right call. Publishing the photos, she acknowledged, may have been a last-resort measure to save a life.
“That being said, sexual violence is a pervasive problem and yet one of the most underreported crimes,” Houser said. “That’s because for many people there are feelings of shame, fear and stigma attached. It could absolutely be retraumatizing if a victim finds out something terrible has happened to her from a photo in the news.”