The story of a California teenager who flew to Hawaii stowed away in an airplane wheel well last weekend made international news. Much has been learned about the boy’s home life and motivations, but there are two groups of officials who have been conspicuously silent about the situation: the aircraft manufacturer Boeing and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Part of the reason is that the case is still being investigated, but a much more important reason is less obvious: Fear of copycats.

Copycat crimes are rare but real; sometimes people become inspired to do things they see on television or in films. In a story about the incident The New York Times noted that “Boeing opted not to discuss the incident; a spokesman said the company did not want to ‘provide any information that might encourage such extremely dangerous and illegal activity.’”

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Presumably any information about how a person could climb into the wheel well of a Boeing 767 and survive the journey relatively unscathed might be useful to other people planning just such an attempt. The news media, understandably, highlighted how lucky the teen was to have survived, noting that of 105 people who have tried to stow away, 80 of them died from the cold and lack of oxygen.

According to the FBI the boy could not remember any details of his journey due to losing consciousness. This claim of retroactive amnesia may be true, but even if it’s not, it’s a helpful fiction for law enforcement officials who know that a detailed, dramatic first-person survival story like his would intrigue the public if published.

Deterring Copycats

Another crime which officials have decided to keep quiet about is swatting — calling in hoaxed reports of armed robberies and hostage standoffs, leading to armed SWAT teams surrounding the homes of unsuspecting victims. While most victims are not high-profile, a rash of celebrities have been targeted, including Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber, Ashton Kutcher and Russell Brand.

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The concern over copycats was so serious that, according to the Los Angeles Times, the LA Police Department last year decided that it would ”take the unusual step of no longer issuing press releases or immediately confirming instances of celebrity ‘swatting,’ saying intense media coverage seems to be fueling more incidents.”

The Times reported:

Cmdr. Andrew Smith, who oversees the LAPD Media Relations Section, said the procedural change was necessary because of concerns about the privacy of the victims as well as the belief that publicizing such incidents was emboldening copycats.   “It’s our belief that the perpetrators of these false police reports are motivated entirely by the publicity these calls receive,’ Smith said. ‘We intend to reduce or eliminate that motivation.’”

While official refusal to discuss details of events like these may seem like overreaction, there is legitimate reason for caution. Many things can inspire copycats, from high-profile suicides to crop circles to fictional crimes seen in films. No one knows exactly what triggers a person to mimic another’s actions, but for many in law enforcement, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons