Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Aurora Observations

                                                                          Karl Gehring - The Denver Post

A week ago this past Friday I was engaged in my normal routine of getting ready for work. This includes getting up at 4:30 AM. One part of this routine is taking a look at the news online. There really wasn't anything of significance on the local and national news sites I look at regularly.

It wasn't until I got in the car and turned on KDKA, and John Shumway teased about "complete coverage of the tragedy in Colorado coming up", that I knew something significant had happened. There were about 5 anxious minutes of driving, wondering about the where and what out there (my son lives in western Colorado), before the initial blurb was broadcast about yet another active shooter incident, this time in the large Denver suburb of Aurora

When I got to work, I got a couple of questions from co-workers about what I knew about the incident and the location involved. I'm somewhat familiar with the area, and have driven past the location of the incident on I-225 many times. I'm familiar with how public safety operations in the immediate area, and across metro Denver, are conducted. A former co-worker, who has been a dispatcher at the Aurora dispatch center for many years, was interviewed as part of the initial media coverage. 

Fortunately, none of the friends I have living in the metro Denver area were involved or anywhere near the scene of the shooting. Prayers have been going out for those impacted, including the responders.

Having had the time to take in some of the reporting and commentary over the last week, I've identified some points that seem to either connect or contrast with conditions or situations in the Pittsburgh area and in Pennsylvania.

1. The general public's understanding of this tragedy has been enhanced by comprehensive coverage in the Denver media, especially the availability of recorded radio traffic during the incident. KUSA-TV tied this audio in with some excellent interviews of the dispatchers involved, providing the public with a look at the human side of the job that doesn't get seen very often..or often enough.

The Denver media obtained the radio traffic either from the comprehensive hobbyist site radioreference.com or similar websites. This site also offers recorded archives to those who pay for memberships to support the site's operations.

There is streaming scanner audio available online for all of southwest Pennsylvania, through Radio Reference, other sites, or smartphone apps. There are also recordings of radio traffic from the Aurora shooting posted to YouTube

These recordings continue to drive reporting about the incident, including reports about the lack of ambulances at the scene in the initial minutes, resulting in many of the victims arriving at local ERs in the backs of police cruisers.

Also intriguing are some extraordinary attempts by prosecutors and the courts to lock down access to court records and involved officials. These attempts are being challenged by numerous media organizations. 

The use of these types of recordings by journalists is occurring more frequently for many recent critical incidents around the country. This would appear to be a potentially important resource for media outlets in Pennsylvania, since the official recordings are not considered open records here as they are in other states, including Colorado. I've written about this disparity previously. 

I haven't seen any major print or broadcast media outlet in our area post links to or utilize online scanner audio as part of their reporting. To try and ascertain the local media's awareness of this resource, or their policies regarding its use, I sent email inquiries to the Post-Gazette and Tribune-Review editorial departments, as well as the news desks of three Pittsburgh TV stations. None of these media outlets chose to reply. 

If we can say for the purposes of argument that accountability and transparency in government results in a better level of service provision for all citizens, then a lot of what's happening in Aurora in the aftermath of this tragedy should be something that citizens interested in reform here should be reviewing. This is particularly important when looking to expand and improve the availability of government documents and records to citizens and the news media. 

After all, it wasn't that long ago that the Pittsburgh area experienced its own mass shooting tragedy. How would a more comprehensive approach to reporting and information gathering by local media and others improve our community's understanding of what transpired? Is there a need for greater openness or access to public records? How can the public interest be competently served?

2. There seem to be some eerie similarities between the Aurora shooting suspect, James Holmes, and John Shick, the Western Psych shooter. Both appear to have been intelligent, excellent students with impressive credentials, from seemingly stable home environments and possessing ample financial resources.

It wasn't until this past Friday, when reports surfaced that Holmes was seeing a psychiatrist, that the Post-Gazette ventured a comparison between the two men, apparently becoming the first mainstream media to do so. 

There are some questions that come to mind about these two unfortunate individuals:
What are the social or other factors that contributed to the mindset that led to their actions?

Did the use or abuse of prescription medications or illegal substances possibly contribute to their isolation, or other problems that manifested themselves in their actions?  

How did two men that showed such promise in their academic life suffer such a descent into irrational and violent behavior? 

I hope that some investigation and answers will be forthcoming, and not just to satisfy the prurient interest of the TMZ or Smoking Gun crowd.

Can we as a society learn more about what is causing these people to act the way they did, and learn from it? I hope so...

3. As one would expect, this incident has generated lots of debate about gun laws and gun rights. I can see the point about the right to bear arms if one chooses to, but I have to wonder out loud how much arms a citizen needs to be able to bear to 'protect'  themselves, and how much involvement the government should have in the process of tracking the sale of such weapons. There has been much commentary online about the regulatory hypocrisy when it comes to guns - the attached photo is but one example.

What really concerns me is the lack of discussion about improving both community awareness of recognizing the signs of potentially dangerous behavior, and/or improving access to mental health and crisis intervention services, regardless of social or economic status. 

It almost seems as if trying to ratchet down gun laws further, regardless of the opposition, is an easy way out compared to taking a comprehensive look at ourselves. What is about our society that causes promising young people like this to go crazy? How do we do something about it?

We got a taste of this locally last week, when a Leetsdale man was charged with drug and weapons offenses after police discovered an apartment full of knives, chemicals used in explosives manufacture, and notebooks with some interesting entries that police claim may constitute malevolent intent.  

Some of the commenters to the above Patch story seemed not only defensive of the suspect, but hostile toward the police that investigated and took action. Leetsdale Police Chief James Santucci expressed surprise that someone with Zachary Clifton's alleged propensities could exist "under the radar".

Some would advocate turning up the range and sensitivity of that "radar", through legislation and enforcement activities designed to catch people before they act - a sort of pre-crime detection strategy.

As with any discussion about these kinds of issues, emphasis will need to be on improving awareness, assuring diligence in service provision, and protecting the individual liberties of law-abiding citizens. Despite all of the clamor and cries for justice and protection that seem to exist in the immediate aftermath of something like this, we must place trust in the checks and balances of a free society. 

We also need to help and care for each other. 

4. One of the hallmarks of that free society, especially in the digital age, is the diversity and seeming universality of information, including entertainment products. As the entertainment industry, specifically the film industry, is inexorably tied to this latest tragedy, I found and have remembered several links to information, opinion, and stories that may help understand these concepts further.

Film critic and American man of letters Roger Ebert wrote an excellent column for the New York Times shortly after the tragedy.

Controversial filmmaker and activist Michael Moore has been focused on the issue of guns in America since his Oscar-winning documentary Bowling for Columbinewas released. He also wrote a blog post after the Aurora incident, referencing the same salient points that he made nearly 10 years ago. He also provides a link where you can watch the whole film for free online. It's worth it.

Also check out The Lives of Others and Minority Report for an illustration of how we as a society can degrade the cause of freedom through fear, control, and intolerance.

There's lots to think about, probably more than we have time for every day. The important thing is not to be afraid. Easier said than done, but essential to maintaining our way of life, and our freedom in challenging times.

Enjoy your August.

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