Nearly a month after Austin’s serial bomber took his own life by blowing himself up in his vehicle as police closed in, Austin still is in the dark about the words he spoke on a 28-minute recording he left behind.
Revelations about the Pflugerville resident’s reign of terror on Austin won’t come anytime soon because his confession is being kept secret from the public by the Austin Police Department.
That doesn’t bode well for transparency on issues that pit the public’s right to know against law enforcement’s right to withhold information. And it signals a shift in the way things were handled at the police department when Art Acevedo was chief.
On a visit to Houston last week, Acevedo, who now is chief of that city’s 5,200-officer department, told me he would release a transcript of the recording with any sensitive information redacted in an effort “to balance public safety with the public’s right to know.”
That would allow people to make their own judgments about the bomber’s confession without the filter of law enforcement, Acevedo said.
Interim Police Chief Brian Manley has said the 28-minute recording won’t be released because it is part of an ongoing investigation.
“We will revisit the decision on releasing the audio once the case is closed,” Manley told me.
Texas law permits that; I respect that. But at what point does “an ongoing investigation” become an excuse to keep the recording secret?
Manley also has said that releasing it might inspire copycats or glorify a bomber who terrorized and killed without regrets. For proof, he sent me research that backs up that point, including an article that references the “contagion effect.”
As described in a March 8, 2016 Washington Post article, the “contagion effect refers to the tendency of some people to model or copy behavior or activity portrayed by news or entertainment media.”
In other words, fame, or notoriety, is a powerful incentive for would-be mass killers. And some have studied the habits of others in plotting their killing sprees, such as reported by the New York Daily News this month.
According to the article, “Nikolas Cruz studied the Columbine High School massacre ahead of his own deadly rampage in Parkland, Fla. earlier this year.”
On the social media front, ABC news reported on findings by researchers Jennifer Johnston and Andrew Joy in 2016, which examined studies on when gun massacres occur and profiles of the perpetrators. The pair looked at a 2015 study that examined 57 billion tweets. Of those 72 million used the word “shooting” and 2 million the words “mass murder” or “school shooting.”
The news report stated: “One of the most startling of Johnston and Joy’s findings is that the more tweets that occur about a mass shooting, the higher the chance of another gun massacre occurring soon after. If, after a school shooting, at least 10 out of every million tweets mentions the incident, the likelihood that there will be another school shooting increases to 50 percent within eight days after the initial violence and to 100 percent within 35 days afterward, according to the paper.”
Reading the research opened my eyes to some things journalists could do better, such as not publicizing the names of mass shooters or killers and avoid showing pictures and videos of their faces. I get that.
But researchers also noted that beyond taking steps to avoid naming serial or mass criminals or showing their images, journalists should report “every other detail so the public gains a better understanding about these tragedies.”
We can’t do that without the bomber’s confession. Give us a transcript.