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State your case: Should an active shooter’s manifesto be made public?

There are many layers of complexity inherent in balancing transparency, public safety, and respect for the victims and their families


On March 27, three children and three adults were murdered by an active shooter at the Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee.

Wade Payne/Associated Press

On May 24, Davidson County Chancery Court Judge I’Ashea L. Myles ruled that the parents of students who were killed or traumatized during the March 27 active shooter attack at the Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee have a legal standing to intervene on behalf of their children in lawsuits requesting evidence be released to the public.

The parents had filed a motion to prevent evidence from being made public, specifically, the journals of the shooter who murdered three children and three adults at the private school.

“There’s no roadmap on this,” Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition on Open Government, a nonprofit that advocates for transparency in government, told ABC News.

In this month’s “State Your Case,” Jim Dudley and Joel Shults provide diverging viewpoints in the ongoing conversation. As we venture deeper into this debate, we invite our readers to engage in this crucial dialogue and share their thoughts in the comments section. Remember, the goal of this debate is to stimulate critical thinking and to understand issues from various perspectives.

Should an active shooter’s manifesto be made public? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.

The ground rules: As in an actual debate, the pro and con sides are assigned randomly as an exercise in critical thinking and analyzing problems from different perspectives.

Our debaters: Jim Dudley, a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau, and Chief Joel Shults, EdD, who retired as chief of police in Colorado.

Jim Dudley: I am of the opinion that the manifesto should not be released to the general media and public for several reasons.

As is often the case, one of the shooter’s motivations may be to gain some notoriety or fame, even posthumously. The rantings may glorify their acts by trying to rationalize their irrational behavior. There is no public necessity to release such hateful motivations. Most often, on Police1’s Policing Matters podcast, we side with the organization behind the “Don’t Name Them” campaign. There have been studies that link a contagion effect on those who may have similar thoughts of focused violence and mayhem. The manifesto of one active shooter may lead to inciting others.

Joel Shults: Rather than protecting the public by keeping the police record of the Covenant school attack secret, we are losing an opportunity to enhance the safety of our schools by studying the event and, in particular, the so-called manifesto of the killer.

A great article by our friend Lt. Dan Marcou recently cited multiple reasons why obtaining and studying these manifestos often scribed by killers can aid investigation, prosecution, training and prevention of attacks by this brand of killer.

There may be good reasons to redact some identifying information of innocents involved in the tragedy, and some merit to the withholding of the school’s security procedures in order to prevent others from planning around these barriers to attack. In practice, though, there is already much known about such matters from the mainstream media. Gruesome photos are of no value to the public and would intrude into the privacy of those already dealing with unimaginable pain. So, good judgment is needed in matters to be released.

We all realize that a vacuum of information will inevitably be filled with bad information. While the public is demanding more transparency and accountability from law enforcement, this secrecy seems at odds with the public’s right to know some particulars about one of the most troubling trends on the minds of parents and students. On the whole, it appears to me to be very much in the public interest to know what makes this type of killer tick while we search for the elusive profile of mass killers.

Jim Dudley: I’m sorry, but I don’t buy the argument of the public’s need to know. Clearly, there is a public fascination for real crime books, social media, TV series and yes, even podcasts. I still don’t see that as a reason to feed the macabre curiosity. There are social media feeds, blogs and even people who idolize these wanton killers – even to the point of resulting in offers of matrimony.

I’ve stated my reluctance to mention the names of killers, but also think about the victims, family and friends of the victims. To give notoriety to the shooter just victimizes them again.

I’ll grant this: release the manifesto to the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit or some research universities to study, but not to the media, social media, or the public at large, for curiosity’s sake. If there is something to be learned, let the experts decide what should be released. As it currently stands, most active shooters release some sort of pre-attack indicators. Katherine Schweit, retired FBI special agent and author of “Stop the Killing,” calls it leakage. If there were some indicators that the public can help spot, let’s release that in a professional document, not a tabloid article.

Joel Shults: The prediction is that without the release of information from official sources, information will be supplied to fill the gaps. Some of that will be speculation, some will be from the many witnesses from the community who will tell the story.

One cloud of mystery that deserves to be answered is what relationship the killer had with beliefs about or experience with the church and school that was attacked. Reliable information tells us that one of the first targets of the shooter was an artistic representation of Adam, known as the first man recorded in the Bible. With the potential of this being a hate crime against a religious institution rather than a public school, and the possible fear of retaliation against transgender people given the identity of the shooter, the motive and methods of this event have significance beyond the need for law enforcement to analyze the event.

I suspect (here we go conjecturing in the absence of information) that these hot-button issues are a core concern of the public beyond mere morbid curiosity. What kind of crime was this? What larger significance, if any, does it have for our culture and society? How can we process the competing narratives that arise? How can we even discuss these questions in a blackout of information? We can’t be demanding accountability and transparency in criminal justice and wink at this particular secrecy.

Jim Dudley: We are at a critical time where we love scapegoats. In regard to mass shooting killers, it is a slippery slope when we rush to call something a trend. Earlier this year in January, there were two mass shooting events in California where both shooters were over 65 years of age. There were some who questioned if we were seeing an emerging trend. If we are going to speculate, suffice it to say if the shooter at Covenant was transgender, then that should have been the description of the shooter. Give details for the sake of identifying the shooter to alert the public and maybe add to the investigation if someone came forward with pre-event behaviors that may have been seen. To publish an entire rant of one individual may just add fuel to a fire already smoldering.

Joel Shults: Jim, as usual with our debate topics, this issue is complex and layered with no easy answers. And, as usual, you make some excellent points and observations.

As a final thought, I contend that all of America, Tennessee and Nashville are victims of this crime. That must take nothing away from those who suffered the intense and unimaginable losses of that day, and due deference should be afforded to them. Nevertheless, even with advances in victims’ rights, our criminal statutes are predicated on collective victimization of society as in The People v. John Doe. That means that the public has a right to know the things they have a right to know. There are things about this case that fit the public’s right to hear. Let’s see that file.

NEXT: Find the manifesto and prevent the event!

Police1 readers respond

  • These manifestos absolutely need to be released. To the general public, perhaps redacted, but to law enforcement and school administration, they need to be released in their entirety. How else can we get a glimpse into the minds of some of these disturbed people if we can’t read how they think or what their goals and objectives are? This kind of horrific tragedy will continue until law enforcement and the powers that be intellectually and socially can get into the minds and help some of these people before these tragedies evolve.
  • I think the manifesto should be released. If it involved an officer, the information would have been released immediately. This manifesto may contain some information to better protect other school districts and/or individuals.
  • The value is in the educational value to police, mental health professionals and anyone else who might learn something that would help troubled individuals or design buildings that are harder for shooters to access. I think that things that might harm families of victims, et al, should be redacted.

  • First, in response to Mr. Dudley’s opinion that only “experts” should be allowed to see the manifesto, this elitist notion flies in the face of democratic principles upon which our country is based, and against common sense. There are signs – from the DHS! – all over the place urging people who “see something” to “say something.” But, just what is a “something”? The contents of this shooter’s writings may (indeed probably will) offer predictive clues useful in identifying a potential mass murder, and thereby may allow preventive intervention. But this should be for all of us – i.e., the people, who are in charge of the “experts.” These “experts” work for the people – NOT the other way around. As Sir Robert Peel said: “The people are the police, and the police are the people.” Secondly, this particular manifesto may shed light on violent tendencies within some societal subgroup, and allow preventive intervention in that arena. Finally, “preventive intervention” as I’ve inferred, is a task for all of us, and not only a select few elitists. Because, as history has repeatedly shown, from “elitism” to tyranny is a very small step.

  • I would suggest that conjecture as to motive is much more toxic than facts. I suspect that the person involved had HPA Axis dysfunction that was long-standing. This opinion is mere conjecture because of a lack of facts on the suspect and her past history. Do we stop teaching history because it’s ugly? Do we hide genocide because of the millions of victims and their relative’s feelings? Life can be ugly. We can learn from it or hide our heads in the sand. It will continue to be repeated if we hide.

  • If there is content that can show the shooter’s motivation, and/or the perfect storm of circumstances and thinking that turned that person into a mass murderer, then there may be some value in reading the manifesto and notes. The goal should be to give us a list of clues, to be able to see when someone is gliding into that abyss of nihilism.

Share your opinion below.