Paula Delos Santos was walking down Holland Avenue in the Bronx, cell phone in hand, when she heard someone approach her from behind. She turned around, and a man she didn’t know grabbed at her cell phone. When she refused to let go of the phone, the man pulled out a blade (she couldn’t see exactly what it was) and slashed her across the face, leaving a six-inch wound from her nose to her chin, a few inches below her ear. The gash required 26 stitches.
Delos Santos is just one recent victim of an apparent string of slashing attacks that began in New York City on December 16. Headline after terrifying headline — "Two More People Slashed in Random Manhattan Attacks"; "Man Slashed in Face in East Village Recalls Random Attack" — has told the story of a spate of crimes involving attacks by strangers with knives, razors, and even needles. In total, since mid-December there have been at least 21 reported slashings, many on or near subway platforms (Delos Santos had just gotten off the 2 train when she was attacked). In comparison, three public attacks of this nature were reported in New York between December 1, 2014, and February 28, 2015: one instance in which a woman was randomly attacked by a stranger, and one in which a man slashed three people in a late-night rampage.
So what does it mean that so many seemingly similar crimes have occurred over a relatively short period of time? One answer is “nothing” — it’s just a coincidence. That’s the argument of New York City’s police commissioner, Bill Bratton. He called the recent string of attacks an “aberration,” and transit bureau chief Joseph Fox insisted “there’s no pattern. There’s no connection between any two of them. They’re not gang related.”
The other answer is that the similarity between the incidents is the result of a much subtler mechanism than gang activity: They’re copycat crimes, meaning perpetrators are "inspired" to re-create offenses they found out about through media coverage. The similarity between the incidents, and the fact that there appears to be such a precipitous uptick in them — NYPD crime data isn’t broken down in a way that offers a clear answer, but a survey of recent media coverage certainly suggests an increase — has led some criminology experts to at least entertain this notion. "We’ve seen a high frequency of so many similar events in the past several months, so I do think we can consider this to be a copycat crime," said Dr. Angela Zhuo, a professor at St. John’s University who specializes in criminology. Dr. Ray Surette, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida, also believes the incidents are probably too similar to be unrelated. "In my opinion it’s unlikely that they’re fully independent of each other," he said.
This might seem like an academic debate, but it isn’t. If Zhuo and Surette are right, media coverage of these crimes could be contributing to their perpetration. And if the copycat model holds true, more media coverage could lead to more crimes, which could lead to more media coverage and more copycatting.
The tricky part, of course, is that it’s very hard to prove a given cluster of crimes “really” has a copycat component. The only way to truly know whether a copycat crime took place is to ask the perpetrator — and even then you have to take them at their word.
Because we can’t see inside criminals’ heads, there’s always been a bit of methodological fuzziness to these investigations. According to a paper by Surette published in Criminal Justice Policy Review, the term “copycat” became popular in reference to social behavior in the late 1800s (the first known use of the phrase was in the 1890 novel Betty Leicester - A Story for Girls), and the idea of the media as a source of criminogenic models emerged during the same period. It was first applied to crime in the 1960s; David Dressler popularized it in his 1961 New York Times article “Case of the Copycat Criminal,” writing, “when crime comes in waves, simple imitation plays a large part in the phenomenon.” According to Surette, the official definition of a copycat crime is “a crime that is linked in form or motivation to a prior media-portrayed crime.”
In other words, for a crime to be considered a copycat, it must be based on a generator crime that’s been reported in the media. Someone who perpetrates a copycat crime can lift any element from the original, whether it be motivation or technique or setting or escape route. But a copycat crime can occur any number of years after the generator crime takes place — think of the school shooters who still use Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as inspiration. A copycat crime can also take place across geographical space; a crime in Blacksburg, Virginia, can directly mimic a crime in Columbine, Colorado. But again: Unless the criminal directly admits to copying a former perpetrator, it’s hard to tell whether two crimes are similar by design or by circumstance.
This lack of definitive measurement method means there’s relatively little data on copycat crimes, said Zhuo. "For social-science studies we rely on large-scale statistics," she said. "If you go to a police department, they can only provide you with a few case files. If we don’t have enough cases, we can’t accumulate evidence to draw conclusions about the patterns." But researchers have collected enough small-scale anecdotal evidence to reveal that copycat crime, while still relatively rare, happens at a steady rate. For instance, Surette conducted a survey of inmates in which he found that one in four (or 25 percent) claimed to at least have attempted a copycat crime in their criminal careers. In general, perpetrators tend to attempt copycat crimes early in their criminal careers, regardless of the age at which those careers begin, Surette said. And although copycat criminals might not have a history of criminal activity, according to Zhuo, in most cases they do tend to have a history of violence or mental illness.
Putting all this together, copycat offenders “are motivated by the desire for infamy or attention, or simply by the desire to harm somebody, and the coverage gives them a model, a technique, and a set of locations in which to do it,” said Surette. So it may be that young people with traumatic pasts or psychological instabilities are more suggestible, therefore more likely to take the wrong message from news accounts. When they come across media crime reports, the possibility of committing a crime themselves takes root in their mind. “Copycat criminals crave attention, so they’re interested in imitating crimes that are sensationalized,” Zhuo said. “For a small subset of people, negative attention is just as rewarding as positive attention.”
When you apply these findings to the details that have been released about the few recent perpetrators who’ve been apprehended by police, it certainly feels as though the case for some level of copycat influence gets stronger. Kari Bazemore, who was arrested for slashing two women, one on January 1 and one on January 6, reportedly has a history of mental illness. Damon Knowles, who was arrested for attacking 71-year-old Carmen Rivera on a D train, has no prior arrests, but according to reports he has a history of domestic violence. Ras Alula Nagarit made wild threats before he cut a woman’s hand at the Atlantic Avenue 3 station. Che Quenten Irving committed two petty robberies after he slashed a man’s hand on a C train. Stephen Brathwaite, who slashed a man on the 3 train after an argument, had a few prior charges for things like weapons possession. Leolyn Rowe, the 47-year-old Brooklyn man who sliced a cabbie across the face early Tuesday morning, had no prior arrests.
So how does media coverage potentially help inspire these crimes? According to Zhuo, when coverage presents a crime using strong verbs and thrilling adjectives, it takes on the glossy veneer of an action film — take the CBS post about Che Quenten Irving that uses “slashed,” “took off,” “fell to the ground,” “fled,” and “struck again.” “In the case of copycat crimes, the attention the crime receives in the media, as well as the horror and the panic among the public, acts as a reward,” Zhuo said. Therefore, “crime reports should avoid accounts that glorify crime, represent the victim sympathetically, give details about the grief of survivors, and discuss the high likelihood of failure, arrest, and punishment for the crime.”
The good news in all this, Surette said, is that if these crimes do have a copycat component, they have a definite life cycle; they rapidly increase in a relatively short period of time before leveling off again. “The incidents lose their novelty, they’re covered less, the police and the public become more self-aware,” he said. “Eventually, the incidents fade out.”
What’s more, crime in New York in general is at an all-time low. It’s perhaps safer than it’s ever been to take the subway (or to do just about anything else) in public. Fear of a copycat slasher should by no means keep you off the subway.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take certain precautions, of course. Zhuo advises commuters not to make eye contact with anyone acting erratically, and to switch seats or train cars or cross the street if necessary. That, she said, is the best we can do. “In many cases copycat crime is spontaneous, so it’s very hard to prevent,” she said. “So many things are out of our control.”