Clown Madness: Cops, Schools, and Media on Edge
A cop suggests putting "a cap in the first clown you see," a reporter asks if police "should keep track of sales of clown costumes," and more.
The Great Clown Scare of 2016 shows no signs of slowing down. Indeed, it is now spilling over the nation's borders: Reports of phantom harlequins lurking in the shadows have started rolling in from Canada and the U.K. too. Here are some recent high points, or low points, of the hysteria:
A cop has a suggestion: "Pop a cap in the first clown you see." In Denton, a suburb of Dallas, a police officer named Latrice Pettaway shared these thoughts on Facebook:
Just a little dark humor on her Facebook page? Maybe. Or maybe she means it: The Dallas Morning News reports that someone then passed along a rumor (eventually debunked) that "one was already hit in the head somewhere up north today." Pettaway replied, "Great!"
In any event, limiting your remarks to Facebook doesn't seem to be a grant of immunity these days, as one man learned…
A fellow was arrested for a Facebook gag. In the two months since this scare began, we've seen several people arrested for falsely reporting creepy-clown sightings to the police. In Livingston County, New York, a man has been arrested for falsely reporting a creepy-clown sighting to his Facebook friends. From the sheriff's office's release about the incident:
Christopher Hooper…posted a picture of a clown supposedly in Vitale Park in Lakeville and advised that the clown had then ran away when he snapped the picture. Hooper went on to advise people that they might not want to allow their kids "in the park at night or alone." Hooper then ended his post with "pass this on as a warning."
The post was shared almost 200 times before it was deleted. The post did cause public alarm with the recent clown issues on social media. The Sheriff's Office has been investigating the clown concerns since last week with no known credible threat but many residents very concerned.
Hooper was arrested on October 3rd and did admit to making the post, as well as photo shopping [sic] the clown picture. Hooper was charged with Falsely Reporting an Incident in the 3rd Degree. The section reads "A person is guilty of falsely reporting an incident in the third degree when, knowing the information reported, conveyed or circulated to be false or baseless, he or she initiates or circulates a false report or warning of an alleged occurrence or impending occurrence of a crime, catastrophe or emergency under circumstances in which it is not unlikely that public alarm or inconvenience will result.
"We have many parents concerned for their children due to social media blowing up this clown issue," stated Sheriff Dougherty. "With those known concerns this man decided to make a post that caused public alarm to many residents and caused for more police resources to be wasted."
After the sheriff's office posted that on its Facebook feed, one reader raised the obvious First Amendment question: Since Cooper "didn't report it to law enforcement, and sitting in a park dressed like a clown isn't a crime," how could the arrest be justified? The sheriff's office replied with every censor's favorite lazy analogy: that the post was "equivalent to standing in a crowded theater and yelling fire."
Schools are freaking out too. Schools have reacted to the scare with varying levels of calm. This email, for example, was sent last night to parents in Seattle:
Dear Seattle Public Schools Families:
The Seattle School District has been contacted by a number of individuals concerned about an ongoing national social media trend related to "Scary Clowns." There have been a few local news stories related to this and some of our students have received pictures of clowns. We are communicating to families to remind you and your student that if they see suspicious individuals while at school, please have them inform their teacher or principal immediately. We also ask you to report any threatening social media activity that involves Seattle Public Schools or our students to your school or the district's Safety and Security Office at (206) 252-0707. This office is open 24 hours a day and 7 days a week.
We take safety seriously, and the security of our students is a top priority. We are working closely with Seattle Police Department to investigate all concerns related to this social media trend.
Yes, I know: Somewhere, at some point, someone might decide to shoot up a classroom while dressed as a clown. It may not be likely, but it's within the realm of physical possibility. But perhaps, at some point in the message, the school district could have mentioned that virtually none of the creepy-clown sightings over the last two months have been confirmed—and the ones that were confirmed turned out to be pranksters taking advantage of the scare? If you're going to send parents an alert, that might be useful info to include.
Especially since we're about to see a rash of "real" clown costumes on the street…
We are all clowns now. We're just a few weeks away from Halloween, so the creepy-clown hoaxes will soon be competing with tampered-treat hoaxes in the public imagination. They'll also be inspiring partygoers and trick-or-treaters. Dallas' CW affiliate reports that clown mask sales at Halloween Express, a national costume chain, are up more than 300 percent compared to last year.
The reporter, apparently trying to be constructive, then posed this question:
With all these sightings and reports of children feeling threatened, we asked former prosecutor, licensed peace officer and defense attorney Pete Schulte if law enforcement or stores should keep track of sales of clown costumes.
You will be relieved to hear that former prosecutor, licensed peace officer, and defense attorney Pete Schulte replied that they should not. Maybe we aren't all clowns just yet.
Bonus link: "A Short History of Phantom Clowns."