More Police Decide Against Naming Mass-Shooting Suspects
ROSEBURG, Ore.— Since Christopher Harper-Mercer killed nine people at an Oregon community college on Thursday, Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin has repeatedly stood before television cameras and briefed the public on the investigation into the horrific mass shooting. But he never once has uttered Mr. Harper-Mercer’s name.
Sheriff Hanlin is one of a growing number of U.S. law-enforcement officials who are actively avoiding naming the suspects in mass shootings, noting that many cite prior killers as inspiration and seem to be motivated by a desire for infamy.
“I will not give him the credit he probably sought prior to this horrific and cowardly act,” Sheriff Hanlin said on Thursday. When Oregon authorities officially disclosed the identity of the 26-year-old gunman Friday evening, it was done briefly, and in writing.
Crime experts say there is little research on whether publicity of mass shooting inspires others to commit similar acts, in part because it’s difficult to discern the motivations of perpetrators who often end up dead. Some also argue that it is important to share as many details as possible about suspects, so that the public can identify potential warning signs and prevent future shooting sprees.
But it is clear that some gunmen express interest in the actions of others—including Mr. Harper-Mercer, who appears to have been seeking notoriety, according to law-enforcement officials. During the shooting at Umpqua Community College, he pulled one student aside to bear witness to the massacre, and handed over an envelope, according to families of students who survived the shooting.
Authorities are now poring over writings from Mr. Harper-Mercer as they seek to understand what motivated his actions, law-enforcement officials say.
On the internet, Mr. Harper-Mercer showed an interest in other shootings. An online account associated with an email address confirmed to belong to Mr. Harper-Mercer was used for a post on the fatal shooting of two television journalists in Virginia in August by a troubled co-worker.
“I have noticed that so many people like him are all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are,” Mr. Harper-Mercer wrote in the post, which has since been deleted. “His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.”
The online account linked to his e-mail address was also used to upload a documentary on the 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Notoriety appears to have been a driving factor for Mr. Harper-Mercer—a lonely, disaffected young man who had been discharged from the Army and had earlier attended a school for students with learning disabilities or emotional problems in Southern California—said J. Pete Blair, executive director of an active shooter training program at Texas State University sponsored by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The program has launched a campaign called “Don’t Name Them” aimed at minimizing media coverage of the shooters and shifting the focus to the victims and rescuers. Its work will be presented at an upcoming conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police later this month.
Though some law-enforcement officials would like to see names not used at all, Mr. Blair said that as a practical matter, “we just don’t want it to be the focal point.”
Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, said that the media should come up with a survivor-centered approach, but noted that the perpetrators should still be covered.
“We do need to know who these shooters are,” he said. “We need to know the particulars, if we want to understand what puts people at risk of committing acts like this, if we want to make sense of these events.”
After a school shooting in Marysville, Wash., last year, police chief Rick Smith refused to say the name of the gunman.
“The story becomes about the suspect instead of victims and I wanted to make sure they were remembered,” he said.
A group called No Notoriety, founded by Tom Teves and his wife Caren, who lost their 24 year-old son Alex Teves, killed in the 2012 mass shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, has also pushed the media to minimize coverage of perpetrators.
“It is not surprising that a sheriff would agree with us, anybody who has had to deal with this agrees with us,” Mr. Teves said. “What we have said is stop making them into anti-heroes or quote-unquote monsters.”
A recent study found that mass shootings come in clusters. What it could not determine, however, is whether withholding of the name and details of the perpetrator would have any effect in reducing such things in the future.
“In order to see if it would have an effect, we would actually have to try it, but it would require everybody to agree to that,” said Sherry Towers, a professor at Arizona State University and co-author of the study.
In Roseburg, Sheriff Hanlin’s decision has been popular. At candlelight vigils on Thursday and Saturday, local leaders and clergy urged people not to use his name.
“I challenge you all never to utter his name,” Douglas County Commissioner Chris Boice said at one of the vigils. The crowd, holding candles aloft, applauded.
On Sunday morning, at a service at the Garden Valley Church, the words of the gunman echoed to the congregation. “Are you a Christian? Those four simple words are impacting me like never before,” Pastor Craig Schlesinger said. “That was the question asked by the gunman a few days ago in our community college in Roseburg just prior to pulling the trigger.”
Some family members of the wounded have recounted how Mr. Harper-Mercer burst into a writing class at the college and demanded to know people’s religion before opening fire, while others say he was not targeting Christians but instead asking if they were ready to meet their maker.
For a moment, the pastor touched on the issue of guns; the area is strongly pro-gun rights. He said he was upset because he said the security guards on campus were not armed: “You don’t take a can of mace to a gun fight.”
There was standing ovation.