Cleveland Tries to Make Sense of a Senseless Killing Broadcast On Social Media | WOSU Radio

Cleveland Tries to Make Sense of a Senseless Killing Broadcast On Social Media

Apr 19, 2017

The three-day search for Steve Stephens ended Tuesday morning with Stephens killing himself after a brief pursuit by Pennsylvania State Police near Erie, Pa.. Stephens was accused of randomly shooting and killing an elderly Cleveland man on Easter Sunday and posting the gruesome video on Facebook.

His post included a rambling statement about his gambling debts, trouble with his girlfriend and other ways his life was falling apart.

According to Raymond Surette, a criminal justice professor at the University of Central Florida, this sort of "performance crime" is growing because social media makes it so easy to send a statement to a small, targeted audience.

“You know, the local football team, the rest of the gang and that sort of thing, and (they) don’t sort of conscientiously think through that - even though the target audience many be 10 of their buddies - the potential virtual audience can be in the hundreds of millions," Surette says.

At Facebook's annual conference for developers and businesses, company founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said his thoughts are with the family of 74-year-old Robert Godwin, the man killed Sunday afternoon on Cleveland’s east side. Zuckerberg said that Facebook will do all it can to prevent such tragedies.

Cleveland police Chief Calvin Williams said the case offers lessons on the power of social media and the harm it can do. 

“This is something that should not have been shared around the world. Period," Williams said. "And our kids, although they should not have seen this, a lot probably have. They need to take this as a lesson. We can’t do this in this country. We just can’t do it.”

Surette says outlets like Facebook are not to blame for postings like Stephens, because it is impossible to police the vast quantity of uploads. But he says they are responsible for taking them down as soon as possible, which he says Facebook did in this case. 

The video was available for about 20 minutes after it was first reported to Facebook and about two hours after the killing. Zuckerberg said Facebook is launching a review for reporting harmful content.

Meanwhile, the social services agency that employed Stephens says his suicide brings both relief and sadness.

Stephens worked at Beech Brook, an agency in suburban Cleveland that deals with vulnerable young people. The agency says that "every suicide is a tragedy" but that Stephens' death eliminates the community's fear that he might kill again.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said the Easter Sunday killing has received the attention it deserves because Godwin's was an innocent life taken for no reason. But he said it also should be a catalyst to try to resolve other violent crime in the city.

"Ultimately, I believe one the things that this has taught us is we cannot resolve the underlying issues of violence, particularly gun violence, if we do not function and operate and have the same compassion and commitment that we’ve shown here," Jackson said.