Clown threat closes Ohio schools: How should police handle 'performance crime'?

Clown threat closes Ohio schools: Spurred by Internet pranks, so-called creepy clowns are finding that police and school officials aren’t in a laughing mood when these threats seep into the real world.

REUTERS/Warner Bros.
Actor Heath Ledger who starred as the Joker in the 2008 movie “The Dark Knight.” People dressed as similarly as creepy clowns are making threats or pulling pranks in the US, spurred by social media.

School and police officials around the country, as well as the Department of Homeland Security, are focusing on the creepy crimes of what was until not long ago a big-shoed jokester with a painted-on frown: the clown.

Seven young people posing as clowns were arrested for inciting panic and making threats this week in Ohio. People in at least 10 states have been accosted and chased by people dressed as clowns – sometimes in multiples – though it’s also clear that false copycat clown sightings are abounding in places like Laurinburg, N.C., where the local police chief, after investigating a clown call, said drily, “We didn’t locate any big footprints.”

Indeed, reports of clowns indirectly or directly threatening people and schools have caused far more stress than actual harm.

But that an internet-born prank has managed to so quickly foment anxiety and annoyance in the real world comes as police departments small and large are taking social-media fueled “performance crimes” increasingly seriously. Indeed, the clown crackdown across the country reflects shifting societal attitudes around how authorities should deal with social media scofflaws who often turn out to be alienated teenagers.

“I take it absolutely seriously,” says Gallatin County, Ky., Sheriff Josh Neale, whose department arrested a middle-schooler this week for using clown images to make vague threats against the school district. “It’s something that caused our community to get very alarmed and things have not really settled down.”

As Halloween looms, people in at least 10 states have made both vague and direct threats, some under the hashtag #WeNotClowninAround.

In Greenville, Ohio, a 20-something man reported being chased by two people wearing clown costumes and wielding baseball bats. In South Carolina, police reported last month that clowns had apparently been trying to lure playground kids into some woods using candy.

In Pottsville, Ohio, Police Chief Richard Wojciechowsky told the Associated Press that “two knuckleheads with clown-like clothes on” jumped out of a truck and yelled at a group of kids and teenagers.

While Chief Wojciechowsky called that incident a prank, the clown phenomenon had a more profound impact on school districts, as several in Ohio closed down and others added extra officers. In one Cincinnati suburb, half the students stayed at home after someone in a clown costume grabbed a woman’s neck and threatened a local school.  

In one clown-related 911 call from Franklin, Ohio, a woman can be heard fighting back tears as she explains that a clown approached her outside her apartment, forcing her to flee inside and lock the door. The clown made no threats nor touched her, but clearly tapped a deep-seated anxiety

“Silly question, but can you give me a description?” the 911 operator says.

“It was like a full clown suit,” the woman sobbed. “All I saw was white and red.”

To be sure, part of what’s driving the concern is part of the same widespread fear of clowns that has caused many professional clowns to forego make-up in recent years. In fact, many American communities have local ordinances forbidding the wearing of masks in public.

But for many police officials, the clown phenomenon is also part of a new social media driven phenomenon that gives new outlets for so-called “performance crimes” which have the capacity to sow panic in communities. That means departments, such as the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Department in Kentucky have been forced to become more savvy in tracing social media activity, especially how to do paperwork necessary to get identifying information from social media companies like Facebook.

Performance crime and justice has changed of late from a rare to a continuous phenomenon,” University of Central Florida criminologist Raymond Surrette wrote last year in the journal Current Issues in Criminal Justice. “New media performances are usually created for small homogeneous audiences, but access is often unbounded due to their digital nature. In this new social media reality, the altered nature of a performance has had significant effects on criminal justice.”

Sheriff Neale says the Department of Homeland Security called him Friday to discuss whether the Gallatin County clown threats were tied to other such incidents in Kentucky and Ohio. Like many police officials, Neale says the incident has forced his department to weigh the impact on the community with the fact that the students involved may not have understood the gravity of their prank.

“I’ve been told that in some surrounding communities they’re having clown meetings,” says Neale. “In some instances, like in our situation, a couple of kids got together and conjured this up, and I don’t think they realized how serious this whole broad thing really is: [Some of the clowns] feel untouchable, they run around in masks and commit crimes, and it’s hard, without forensic evidence, to find out who did it.”

Arrests and felony charges have followed in some cases as local police try to make examples of pranksters that scare communities and waste taxpayer dollars.

Other municipalities have treated the creepy clown craze with more deliberation. In Corpus Christi, Texas, a student won’t face any criminal charges, but will spend the rest of the school year at the district‘s Student Support Center for using the pseudonym Jax Da’Klown to encourage other people to dress up as clowns and commit violence.

That range of punishment suggests to some observers that US law enforcement is struggling to understand and manage the interplay between perhaps irrational clown fears and actual threatening behavior. Indeed, critics say the panicked reaction in places like Gallatin County says more about law enforcement and an anxious culture than the time-honored decision by teenagers to engage in pranks.

“The clown-ness of this is not the driving cause, as far as teenagers, it’s that attitude of, ‘you’d better not do this because it’s the one thing everyone is in a panic about,’” says Charles Kupfer, an American Studies professor at Pennsylvania State University in Harrisburg. “My belief is that rebellious kids – I was one once – like to do the naughtiest thing they can find. You do the one thing where people go, ‘Oh, my God, what are these youngsters up to?’ That’s a thrill when you’re an alienated teenager.” 

“It’s one thing if our country was currently suffering from a true, vast wave of clown-perpetuated violence, but instead what we’re suffering from is internet-driven panic and exposure to some really stupid Hollywood productions and thriller novels,” he adds. “Sometimes there seems to be no capacity on behalf of [the bureaucracy] to respond with judicious nuance. Instead, we throw the book at the rebellious teenager wearing the Bozo the Clown mask she found up in the attic.”

Even police departments with a sense of humor about the clown trend, however, are deciding to respond with full transparency.

“As you probably know, [clown sightings are] occurring across the country,” the Fairfield, Ohio, police department wrote to residents on Facebook. “We do not perceive this as a threat, but we believe you should know that they have contacted us.”

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