Monday, November 7, 2011

Homicide Watch and Victim Identification

This week, the NPR show On the Media had an interview with Laura Amico, the founder of a website called Homicide Watch D.C. This website tracks every homicide in Washington, DC from the time the crime is committed through the investigation, trial and sentencing. It's a big job in a city that has already experienced 95 murders in 2011 (down from 106 at this point in 2010).

One of the things that makes Homicide Watch interesting is that they often publish information that has not been made public by the police department. Most notably, they publish victim's names before they have been released. The interview on NPR today focused on how they are able to do that.

If you think about it, it actually isn't all that hard. The fact of the matter is that, unless the person is truly unidentified, a large number of people know the identity of the victim immediately after a homicide. Friends, relatives, neighbors, colleagues, classmates etc. hear about it very quickly. These people, in turn, do two things: they go online looking for information about the crime, and they go online to talk about it.

When these folks go looking for information, they don't realize that public information tends to be very meager and come out very slowly. Chances are that they themselves already know more about what happened than is available in the media. They're looking, nonetheless. So immediately after the murder of John Smith, his friends and relations start googling terms like, "murder John Smith Washington November 7." One of the sites they are most likely to find themselves directed to is Homicide Watch D.C., even though it doesn't have any information for them.

Meanwhile, the folks over at the website have a preliminary police report that a male victim died of stab wounds on XYZ street. All of a sudden, the analytics for their website start showing that people are googling "murder John Smith Washington November 7." So the website folks go on Twitter and Facebook, looking for things like "RIP John Smith." When they find it, they can also often find additional information. For example, the full tweet might read, "RIP John Smith, stabbed to death tonight." That's a good clue that the victim is John Smith. Even better, they may be able to find John Smith's Facebook page, where people may be posting memorials and comments about the murder.

At this point, they know the victim's name and they publish it, hours and sometimes days before the police release it. But should they? After all, the police hang onto that information for a reason, and if they have a good reason shouldn't the website have the same reason?

Let's start with why the police are slow to release the name. They want to be absolutely certain they have it right, and they want to be absolutely certain that no close relative will hear about the crime from the media before they are officially notified. The techniques the police department uses to identify victims and the standards they use for "absolutely certain," however, are very different than what Homicide Watch is using.

The police may be waiting on fingerprint confirmation. At a minimum they're waiting for a family member to come down to the morgue and identify the body. Homicide Watch presumes that if the family is tweeting and facebooking about it, they've already identified the body for their own purposes, if not for the police department's, and that's good enough for them. Homicide Watch also relies on the fact that if the murder has made it to Twitter and Facebook there is very little chance that any close relatives don't already know. Another way of looking at it is this -- the police wait until they have identified the victim to their satisfaction. Homicide Watch waits until they see evidence that the victim's family has identified them to the family's satisfaction.

In the end, I actually think publishing the name before it's released officially is something of a service to the relatives and loved ones of the victim. If you have ever been involved in a traumatic event, you have probably experienced the odd feeling that comes when you realize that your world has stopped turning and the rest of the world doesn't know it. Reading media that has no coverage of your event, or inaccurate or minimalist coverage, feels just plain wrong. At least with Homicide Watch, the next time someone googles for information, they will find some confirmation that yes, this awful thing did happen and yes, someone noticed. On balance, I think that's a good thing.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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