See violence on social media? Say something

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DENVER -- Police across the country are on the hunt for a man who recorded video of himself shooting and killing 74-year-old grandfather Robert Godwin Sr. in Cleveland on Easter. Authorities said the suspect, Steve Stephens, posted the chilling video on Facebook.

The recording is the latest in a string of disturbing videos showing violence that in some cases go viral before police are called.

Before Sunday’s killing, there was an assault of a special needs victim in Chicago shown in a live Facebook feed. Chicago police said dozens of people watched the violence live but never said a word.

“People assume that someone else will report,” said Ian Farrell, University of Denver assistant professor of law.

Farrell said some people in certain states could be in trouble with the law for not calling police when witnessing violence on social media.

“In general, there is not a requirement to either help somebody else or to report a crime,” Farrell said. “There are some states in which that is the case.”

Texas and Ohio are two states where the law is clear. People can be punished if they see something and don’t say something.

Farrell could not find a similar law in Colorado. But even if Colorado had such a law, enforcing it would be a challenge.

“Facebook is so anonymous that [police] wouldn’t know whether or not somebody received that feed,” said Vincent Wincelowic, Regis University’s chairman of criminology.

Wincelowic, formerly of the FBI, said it is unlikely many officers will go to the trouble of seeking a warrant to learn who watched video showing criminal activity.

There is not much, if any, precedent to support punishing people who do not report violence viewed online.

As the government continues to catch up with technology, Farrell believes it will be more likely that new laws will be created to directly address crimes shared or committed on social media and elsewhere on the internet.

Most good Samaritan laws make exceptions for people who cannot safely report crimes.

There are also exceptions in place for people who reasonably believe a crime they are witnessing has already been reported to authorities.