Sat, Dec

Violating Gunshot Victim’s Privacy Rights

GELFAND’S WORLD--It's hard for me to write this column because the topic inspires anger and outrage. The subject is how the privacy of gunshot victims is violated. My sensitivity to this problem began one evening nearly 20 years ago. It involved a scared teenage girl with a gunshot wound to her chest. She hadn't chosen this condition, it just happened to her, suddenly and unexpectedly. She hadn't decided to be wounded by the act of a stranger, but as a result of her condition she was under the glare of the television lights, wrapped in a sheet, as the paramedics moved her in front of gawking onlookers to an ambulance out on the street. I felt for her at the time, and spoke rudely to the television camaraman who was trying to edge his way forward for a closer shot. 

There have been countless such gunshot victims in the interim. You might have seen the latest ones on television on Wednesday. Survivors of the San Bernardino shooting were carried on gurneys to waiting ambulances, and the television cameras looked on. The few clips that were available were repeated, again and again, showing people soaked in what was obviously their own blood, with body parts protruding from torn or cut clothing. The following day, the photo of one victim was run on the front page of one of the New York tabloids. 

Legally, the news media apparently have the right to show the victims of crime in this way, in all their helplessness, fear, and frailty. That act of carting the crime victim to a waiting ambulance is something that happens in public. At least it's in public over the distance between the location of the shooting and the ambulance waiting out on the street. Public happenings are lawfully available to the news media to photograph and videotape. That's freedom of the press. 

The television news crews have been doing this for many years, lots more years than the rest of us have had iPhones. They show up at the scene of a shooting, and wait for an opportunity to show a bloody victim. 

I would like to raise an issue of morality here, or to put it another way, perhaps it's just an issue of simple courtesy. In order to understand this argument best, you should put yourself in the place of the shooting victim. 

The people who were shot on December 2 did not volunteer for the job. They were forcibly turned into victims by the acts of the shooters. They did not sign a contract or agree to be shown to television viewers all over the country. 

What happened to them happened with amazing suddenness. One moment they were enjoying their lives, and the next moment their most fervid hope was to live long enough to become hospital patients. They were suddenly rendered helpless, to the extent that they would have to rely on the skill and care of strangers. The process of becoming a shooting victim involves the loss of control and the loss of personal privacy, at least as far as being probed and treated by the paramedics on the scene. If the paramedics need to look for an exit wound, they will, as personally intrusive as that is. 

Through a series of acts over which they had no control, these shooting victims were turned into a public spectacle. First, their persons were violated by the shooters' bullets, and then their privacy was violated by the news media. 

It may be that some of the shooting victims didn't care one way or the other whether Channel 7 was peering down on them. But I have to think that at least some of the victims, probably most, would have preferred that their privacy be protected. 

Unfortunately for the crime victims, our Constitution does not convey a right of privacy for what they were enduring. They have become part of a news story. The right to report on their experiences is protected by the First Amendment. 

In short, there is no legal protection for the crime victim's privacy. But there could be a cultural bias against that privacy being violated by the eleven o'clock news. If enough people found the opportunistic violation of the crime victim to be offensive rather than titillating, then the mass media would potentially learn to back off. 

The idea of asking the news media to create this kind of moral and cultural standard is, admittedly, a pipe dream at the moment. But we know that networks have offices of standards and practices that limit the ability of late shows to use profanity and prevent sitcoms from showing too much skin. Is it too much to ask that something similar be applied to shooting victims who don't happen to be professional entertainers? 

What would make this happen is for community leaders to demand that crime victims be protected. The conservative movement has spoken about the rights of crime victims for years. It has been critical of the news media in more recent times. Perhaps the conservative movement can put that energy to good use, and speak for the rights of crime victims when it comes to being exposed unnecessarily on the 6 o'clock news. I suspect that it is a principle that both sides of the political spectrum can agree on. 

The active shooter principle 

The coverage of the San Bernardino massacre demonstrates how cell phone videos taken by witnesses and bystanders have become an important part of the news, and therefore of the public record. Simply put, the fact that the public and private space is now saturated by people carrying cell phones with video capabilities means that newsworthy events are first seen and recorded by members of the public. The professional news media are now in the position of following up and making sense of a whole collection of different kinds of recordings, ranging from helicopter videos to press conferences to cell phone videos contributed by those who just happened to be on the spot when a shooting or other newsworthy event happened. It is up to the video editors in the television newsrooms to put all this footage together in some sort of coherent fashion. 

One short clip was of particular interest in Wednesday's coverage. The subject involves the changed way that law enforcement reacts to what is now known as an active shooter situation. As the television news explained, the previous method for dealing with a gunman or group of gunmen was to create a perimeter and call in the Swat team, which would then deal with the situation as seemed appropriate. 

This may have been correct in an era when the problem, as rare as it was, involved botched crimes and hostage situations. The tense standoff became a popular topic in the movies, in such films as Dog Day Afternoon and Cadillac Man

With the advent of mass rapid-fire murder, the tactics have changed. As television announcers explained to us, when the seconds and minutes count, and every additional moment could result in the loss of life, the correct tactic is for law enforcement to enter immediately and attack the gunmen. 

Remarkably, Wednesday's events included a video record of exactly that. A cell phone video taken by someone in an adjoining building showed law enforcement officers running towards the scene of the shootings. They were not wearing the sort of battle armor that we associate with the Swat units. They appeared to be officers who just happened to be the first on the scene. What we saw was our fellow human beings, albeit in uniform, moving rapidly towards a most unpleasant and clearly dangerous place. 

The San Bernardino Chief of Police, in his press conference, referred to the actions of his officers as heroic. It was not clear from the cell phone video exactly which agencies were represented by the officers running towards the shooting, but the adjective seems appropriate. 

Wednesday's events also added a new data point to the ongoing argument whether our local police agencies should have military grade vehicles. The militarization of our local police agencies has been the subject of recent debate. Wednesday's emergency reminds us of the old saying that when you need something, you need it. In this case, the need was for the ability to defend police officers from military grade armaments and to be able to outshoot them. The fact that the two shooters had been able to stockpile thousands of rounds of ammunition that is suitable for warfare, and to build improvised explosive devices in a home garage, and to legally obtain rifles described by the police as assault weapons, makes clear the point that we are in a new era, and the police have to be able to adapt. It is an unpleasant thought for all of us, police included, to say the least.


(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for City Watch. He can be reached at [email protected]





Vol 13 Issue 98

Pub: Dec 4, 2015