I have recently been following the story of Steve Stephens, the man who shot and killed Robert Godwin and uploaded a video of the crime to Facebook. The nation was stunned and horrified when it watched this crime unfold, and many wondered what would drive a man to commit such a horrible crime so openly. I wondered the same thing, especially in relation to how it impacts law enforcement.
Typically, the police have to do some hardcore detective work into order to determine such aspects of a crime as motive, suspect, situation, etc. However, in this case, everything was in the open: Stephens got out of his white Ford Fusion, approached Godwin, whose face could be clearly seen on the camera, declared that his ex-girlfriend was to blame for the crime about to occur, shot Godwin in the face, and uploaded the video to his own personal Facebook account. It would seem then that the job of law enforcement became easier since Stephens so carelessly shared the details of his crime to the world, necessitating little in the way of investigation and immediately enabling a massive manhunt to take place that resolved in just two days with Stephens’ cornering and suicide. However, law enforcement has one issue to contend with: the popularity of the video.
Stephens uploaded his video only months after four black young adults in Chicago streamed on Facebook Live the hate-driven torture of a mentally handicapped white man. Both of these incidents come amidst a backdrop of an increase in disturbing video content ranging from rape to suicide onto Facebook Live and similar sources that enable real time streaming. This trend presents a serious challenge for law enforcement, who now have to worry about other people watching these crimes be committed in addition to worrying about the crime itself. For example, on March 19, the violent gang rape of a fifteen-year-old girl in Chicago was streamed on Facebook Live. Forty people tuned in to watch, but none reported it. Given that the victim and perpetrators were underage, there is the possibility that police may have to worry about forty potential child pornography cases in addition to the rape itself since no one bothered to report it.
Even if a crime whose mere witnessing is not illegal in the same way as the rape of a minor is broadcast on Facebook, law enforcement still has to contend with the potential popularization and glorification of crime in the same vein as the often-criticized over-publicity that mass shooters receive. After Stephens’ video, for instance, experts warned of the possibility of “copycat” murder videos being posted after Stephens uploaded his. Additionally, with the uptick in suicides being posted to Facebook, police have to worry about suicide contagion, which is a phenomenon wherein a single suicide can cause additional suicides in the surrounding community, on Facebook.
Perhaps Facebook Live and other streaming services can help police solve crimes in an easier fashion, but it will be hurtful in the long run for anyone hoping for a reduction in publicized crime.