Step change or stress? The debate over crime scene footage | Jobs Recent



McClellanville, SC
KHN

John Lites was one of the first police officers to respond to a 911 call from Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015, when a white gunman killed nine Black people attending a Bible study.

The Lites arrived on the scene just minutes after the first emergency call. He held one of the bereaved’s hands. Lites then stood guard inside the fellowship hall all night – staying even with bomb threats – to prevent unauthorized people from entering the room.

“I didn’t want anyone to see it,” Lites said. “I was completely devastated.”

Criminal events are always disturbing. A few weeks after the mass shooting in Charleston, Lites found himself in the throes of post-traumatic stress and unable to sleep. What happened inside the church was etched in his memory.

“It’s the worst thing you can think of — it’s worse than that,” said Lites, who retired from the police force in 2018. “Nobody else has to see that.”

John Lites was one of the first police officers to respond to the shooting that killed nine Black people at Mrs. Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. He lives with post-traumatic stress disorder, an incident inside the church has been publicized.  on his memory.

A question that continues to be debated in the public eye – and is raised after every mass shooting – is whether the release of violent images, including those showing gunshot wounds or police brutality, will be effective in preventing future killings.

Supporters of the release of these images say that if the public were forced to think about the gravity of this death, people would respond by asking the lawmakers to resolve it in a reasonable way. Proponents cite historical examples of images that have led to action or change in law or public opinion.

After the painful death of Emmett Till – a young man from Chicago who in 1955 was tortured and killed in Mississippi by a group of white men – photos of his mutilated body appeared in Jet magazine. Scholars credit those images with inspiring a generation of human rights activists.

In 1972, nine-year-old Kim Phuc Phan Thi became known as the “Napalm Girl” after a photo of her – distressed, naked, and fleeing a bombed-out village in Vietnam – was published by The Associated Press. The photo won a Pulitzer Prize, turned public opinion against the conflict, and arguably became the most famous image depicting the brutality of the Vietnam War.

“We must confront this violence,” Phan Thi wrote in a guest column for The New York Times this year. “The first step is to look.”

In June, former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson wrote a similar piece, arguing that such images “do more than say a thousand words.”

“Some things clearly show us what words cannot adequately express,” he wrote.

But there are those, like Lites, who argue that publishing photos of violence risks traumatizing survivors, families who have lost loved ones, and the public. They say that spreading clear pictures to be eaten by many is disrespectful to the dead and that there is no guarantee of pictures from Colorado Springs, Colorado; Uvalde, Texas; Buffalo, New York; Parkland, Florida; Las Vegas, and hundreds of other sites of mass murder, would do anything to prevent future attacks or encourage law enforcement to act.

In 2015, a white gunman killed nine Black people attending a Bible study at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Furthermore, they argue, there is no way to control how images are used once they are published online. Opponents of the ad fear that the photos could become “pornography,” a pejorative term used to describe the gratuitous pleasure of danger or tragedy.

“The way I see it is that America can’t ask me for anything worse,” said Nelba Márquez-Greene, a family doctor whose six-year-old daughter, Ana Grace, was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012.

After the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, in May, Márquez-Greene wrote a guest column in The New York Times in which she expressed opposition to the demands placed on families seeking the release of criminal photographs.

Márquez-Greene told KHN that calls to release photos of Ana Grace inside the elementary school began the same day she was murdered. “It’s just horrible and bad; like, we are giving the public the power to do this,” he said.

Concerns about how images can be used are rooted in history, said Mari Crabtree, an associate professor of African American studies at the College of Charleston.

More than 100 years ago, he said, photographs of lynchings in the South were shared to advance various agendas. The images were sometimes associated with racists to “celebrate the death of Black people,” he said. But they have also been used by civil rights groups – such as the recent NAACP – to raise awareness about the brutality of the Jim Crow era.

In the early 1900s, the NAACP printed and reprinted violent photos to push state lawmakers to enact anti-lynching legislation, Crabtree said. But it took Congress more than 100 years to pass the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, in March 2022. The time it took to make lynching a federal hate crime casts doubt on the ability of such images to spur change, he said.

For his upcoming book, “My Spirit’s Witness: The Traumatic Afterlife of Lynching,” Crabtree chose not to include an image of the lynching on the cover. “Lynching was to stigmatize black people into doing things of white rage,” he said. “I didn’t want it to emphasize that.”

He also wanted to avoid offending anyone who came across his book – if, for example, it was placed on a coffee table. Photographing Black Death in a conventional way can be very damaging, he said.

Images of violence can also be psychologically damaging, especially for people with post-traumatic stress disorder, said Nicole Sciarrino, a psychiatrist with the Department of Veterans Affairs and an expert in PTSD. Pictures, videos, and sounds can “trigger” and exacerbate symptoms, he said. It can also be the trigger that prompts someone to seek help, he added.

Images alone do not cause PTSD, psychologists said. But there is some debate about whether watching violence unfold online — such as a feed of a mass shooting on social media — can trigger a stress-traumatic response, Sciarrino said.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders excludes exposure to trauma through electronic media, TV, or video games from the criteria for the diagnosis of PTSD. But some psychologists think that should change, Sciarrino said. Their views emerged after 9/11, when millions of people saw the World Trade Center towers in New York City fall on TV. The photos taken in Lower Manhattan that day remain haunting.

Repeated exposure to graphic images online can make people less violent, said Erika Felix, an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of California-Santa Barbara. Mass shootings are so common that people often resort to what Felix calls “emotional conditioning,” a term used to describe the tendency to feel better.

“Sometimes, scary pictures make a difference,” he said. “Sometimes, these things change the public conversation. I don’t deny that.” But, Felix said, there is also a risk that the photos can do more harm than good: “That’s a big risk in my opinion.”

John Lites retired from police service about four years ago, after a hip injury, and then moved with his wife to McClellanville, a rural town on the northern edge of Charleston County.

He takes medication for PTSD but rarely talks about the night of the church shooting.

A few years ago, he attended a training in Columbia, South Carolina, where he met with Connecticut officials, who spoke about their experiences inside Sandy Hook Elementary. Lites saw it in their news. “It helped me to move on, which I couldn’t do,” he said.

He is disappointed that the 2015 church shooting was not the last mass killing in the country. Lites now sees mass shootings in America as a symptom of a larger mental health problem.

“We are not doing anything to fix it,” he said. “What does printing those photos do to get us there?”



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