Sitting on the couch yesterday evening, my girlfriend pointed out this Facebook post from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro police department, which a friend had brought to her attention:
This message is to make you aware of a former student, Andrew James Walker. This subject has a history of mental illness and recently has expressed hostility towards members of the UNCG community. The UNCG Police Department has received information that Mr. Walker may be attempting to obtain a firearm in High Point. He should be considered dangerous. Mr. Walker is a white male, 38 years-old, and has grayish black hair. He is possibly operating a 2005 white Toyota Corolla, license WRV-5200. If you come in contact with him, notify UNCG Police as soon as possible, (336) 334-[XXXX]
Though she was pointing it out for a different reason, my initial reaction was surprise at what was revealed in the post, moving quickly to a certain level of indignation at the violation of privacy present here.
This information should absolutely go to the police, as quickly, efficiently, and as freely as possible. It is crucial that law enforcement be notified of the potential and impending situation inherent here for them to do their job. And because the subject has in some way “expressed hostility” – though there’s no way to know what form this took – I believe they have every right to take whatever precautionary measures they deem appropriate. He should also, of course, not be allowed to purchase a gun. I don’t see any reason, however, for the general public to be notified of this. There is no over-arching need to spread this information to the public – effectively condemning this man – before any actual crime has taken place, for no other reason than a vague and unspecified “history of mental illness.” In fact, it seems like posting this would cause more problems than it solves, for at least two reasons that I can think of.
The first is localized – revealing the information, including the man’s name, ensures that he will be treated as a psychopath and murderer for the rest of his life, regardless of whether he actually is. An accusation, particularly one of such heinous potential as a mass shooting, as the notice implies, and particularly in our current DefCon 4-state of heightened awareness in the wake of recent mass shootings, is just as condemning as a conviction. In theory, we are innocent until proven guilty in this country, and although some people will surely tell me that notion has fallen by the wayside in a post-9/11 era, I still believe – and wish more people did also – that we should treat people like mature, responsible adults until they give us reason not to. I don’t have any more information than is in the post – it was covered in the news here, but only very briefly and with no additional information – so as far as I know, there is no reason to believe this man would commit a mass shooting based on his actions (if he had committed other mass shootings, or had been seen stalking the campus with a gun, that would be a different situation).
The second reason is more general – informing the public of a situation like this in the sort of climate we have turns many into the worst sort of ruthless, vindictive, prejudicial conspirators, who assume the role of judge and jury, and can push some toward some degree of vigilantism. Doing this seems like it would cause way more trouble than it’s worth, as I seriously doubt anything helpful would be gained from the efforts of untrained citizens to catch a criminal (particularly with such a vague description given of him).
The post itself is an outburst of hysteria, and seems atypical of a responsible police department. But the chief of police, James Herring, insists that the post conforms to the department’s “legal obligations for notification.” He posted as much in the comments section, in response to the first of only two commenters to question whether it might be “possibly defamatory” to release this information to the public (out of 68 comments as of this posting). The commenter was subsequently ridiculed by the other commenters.
Which brings up another point; the best case for not releasing this kind of information is the comments section of the original post. Some of them are words of thanks for the warning, and some are in praise of Herring and law enforcement for handling the situation “professionally” – and I certainly do not begrudge Herring his praise if he was indeed acting within the law in releasing this – but a disturbingly large amount are unnecessary and at times cruel and ignorant ridicule of the suspect and the two people who halfway stood up for his rights. The second of those went further than the first, saying, “The man still has rights, would you like it if they posting stuff like this about you if you had commited no crime?” Another commenter responds, “He infringed on the safety and well being of my son and thousands of other students and faculty members when he made threats..his rights are no longer a concern.” The discussion disintegrates from there. It is this sort of hysterical, reactionary, ignorant attitude that leads me not to trust the public to handle a situation like this, and should therefore not be informed of the specifics of it. I do not automatically expect each person I meet to be stupid, but the dangers of groupthink are well established and studied, and continue to perpetuate themselves. A person is smart, but people are panicky.
I would also like to mention that, coincidentally, UNCG is a school I am seriously considering attending in the coming year for a graduate program. I would not expect this information to be revealed to me if the situation happened to repeat itself while I am there. The act of attempting to buy a gun while simultaneously having mental health issues on your record – though I don’t think he should be able to buy a gun, but since in this state he can – should not warrant a widespread crime alert. This is a threat to my rights, and your rights, as much as it is to the suspect’s.