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Police chiefs: Here’s why you need to tell local media to not name the killer

Research shows the contagion effect is real and news media coverage is impacting the decisions of potential killers


Law enforcement personnel stand outside Robb Elementary School following a shooting, Tuesday, May 24, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas.

AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills

By Katherine Schweit

The school shooting in Uvalde, Texas – with all the facts still pouring in – will be remembered for years to come.

With emotions running high, I implore all of us to keep a calm head about our conduct when it comes to sharing information about the shooter, including his name.

Right now, word is spreading that the shooter possibly posted his intent to do this shooting – a clear cry for help that law enforcement officials see time and time again. We call this “leakage,” and those are the signs we all need to look for to stop the next shooter.

Posting and reposting these details, looking to place blame or explain what cannot be explained may make us all feel better for a few minutes, but I implore you to slow down tonight. Look to others who might be leaking their intent.

One of the critical aspects of these shooters is their desire to be famous. And when you tweet and re-tweet a killer’s picture, his guns and his writings, the internet sucks that information in, never to relinquish it again. One of the Columbine killers’ names evidenced 1.7 million hits. Don’t be one of those hits for this killer. Don’t give him – and those who will admire him – the fame they seek.

Listen: Katherine Schweit shares an insider look at what we know about mass shooters

Just last week I was in Ocean City, Maryland, and a few weeks ago in Springfield, Illinois, talking about the contagion factor. In the two weeks after a shooting, there will be three more. We have the research. We need to act on it.

About a decade ago, researchers began looking into the contagion or copycat effect to determine if coverage of one shooting prompts another to strike. Research shows news media coverage is impacting the decisions of potential killers.

Researchers at Northeastern Illinois and Arizona State universities released a study finding a contagion “effect lasting approximately 13 days” after a mass shooting. In 2017, our FBI behavioral experts – who are always reviewing the why factor for killers – began stressing that law enforcement should minimize the use of photos and the shooters’ names and details of their plans. Another researcher said, “Our findings consistently suggest a positive and statistically significant effect of coverage on the number of subsequent shootings, lasting for 4-10 days.” Social media research is thinner but the impact is likely the same.

It’s early and the next few days will give us so many more details. But right now, as professionals, we need to keep our emotions in check enough to not name the killers, not post their photos, nor detail what we learn. The next killer is out there watching how collectively we give this one his fame.

NEXT: Read an excerpt from Katherine Schweit’s recent book, “Stop the Killing: How to End the Mass Shooting Crisis”

About the author

Katherine Schweit is an author, attorney, former Chicago prosecutor and career Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent who helped jail bank robbers, kidnappers, and domestic terrorists, while working daily with local police investigating and responding to mass casualty and active shooter incidents.

A native of Detroit, Ms. Schweit earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Michigan State University. She earned a law degree at DePaul University and joined the Cook County prosecutor’s office as an assistant state’s attorney. She is the author of “Stop the Killing: How to End the Mass Shooting Crisis” and “A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States between 2000 and 2013.”

She runs Schweit Consulting LLC, providing leadership counseling, security advice and safety training to hospitals, businesses, religious organizations, educators and government clients. Follow her on Twitter.