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Mass Shootings: Resolution Through the Uniting of Communities, Individuals and Leadership

Eagle Law Enforcement expert & retired FBI agent Mike Harrigan discusses how the focus on mass shooters must shift to the communities in which these troubled individuals live.

As two communities begin the long and arduous process of healing in the wake of the recent shootings in Texas and Ohio, law enforcement now turns its attention to examining the motivations of the shooters while searching for ways to prevent the next occurrence. Even before the families had been notified of the loss of their loved ones, news outlets were replete with experts of all backgrounds and specialties sharing their opinions on what happened and why it happened. In an equally expeditious manner, politicians were out front proposing legislation to finally “fix” the problem. It would be wonderful if one leader, one expert, or one inventor could come up with a solution to relegate this issue to the dustbin of history. Unfortunately, such a single-source solution does not, and will never exist.

As a society, we have historically sought quick solutions to problems in order to get back to our busy lives while we await a new issue to concern us and occupy our conversations over the dinner table and with friends. A piece of legislation, some grant money, and when the issue is no longer in our daily newsfeeds, we consider it solved. When it comes to issues of criminality, a common solution tends to be seeking new federal statutes and regulations due to their relative ease to fulfill the short-term need to “get something done”.

While federal resources can have an impact in the wake of one of these events and in raising awareness of the issue, the most important factor in preventing these tragedies lies at the State and Local level.  In particular, the community is the critical juncture of family, schools, social services, and law enforcement, which are the entities that have the best opportunity for direct and repeated interactions with the individual prior to the advent of a mass shooting.

Millions and millions of dollars have been poured into programs and equipment to prepare our first responders and harden likely targets, with the intent to minimize the damage a shooter can do. While these measures have shown dramatic results in some of these events, and prevented untold numbers of others, the attacks and loss of life continue.  Assessments of the shooters reveal twisted ideologies, mental health issues, and a plethora of other problems that we judge to be the “cause” of the actor’s sick manifestations. But while these studies allow us to have clarity in hindsight, the key to making a real impact on the issue lies in those assessments and judgments made before the shooter takes their deadly action.

It is easy to fall into the trap of developing intervention strategies based solely on the analysis of the shooters. While this analysis gives us much valuable information on which to base response strategies and security measures, they alone will never significantly impact the problem.  The hard reality is that fortunately, few of society’s troubled individuals actually turn their thoughts into this type of action, which makes it nearly impossible to definitively identify a future mass shooter from among the many persons out there who share some of their commonalities.  We need to focus our attention on those persons who may share some of the characteristics of these shooters and who manifest their issues through other criminal activity, substance abuse, sexual exploitation of others, suicide, and other destructive behaviors.  This necessitates a much broader approach to addressing the problem and favors a multi-disciplinary approach, involving personnel from a number of specialties, to include: educators, social workers, health care, law enforcement, and human resource departments, among a myriad of others.  This team approach is most effective when operating in an atmosphere of trust, collaboration, and a shared purpose to save lives and to help those tortured souls from whom the seeds of violence sprout.  To the greatest extent allowed by law, information regarding a troubled individual must be shared robustly among these organizations.

Of course, the effectiveness of any approach to intercepting an actor starts with two critical components – the troubled individual must appear on the radar of a member of the community team, and the team must be properly trained and managed to ensure it carries out its duties with maximum effectiveness.  The team cannot be relied upon solely to identify the person as they conduct their daily functions, rather, someone must take action by reporting the troubled individual to a component of the community team.  This is a key link in the chain that is missing in many of the cases where one turns to mass shooting – individuals generally recognized troubling behavior by the actor, including talk of mass homicide, but failed to make the report.

This is where the leadership of these community teams serve such a critical role.   Public outreach and an effective communication strategy is as the core of spurring public participation.  The public must be well informed as to when and how to report, and they must feel confident their report will be taken seriously and appropriate action taken.  The ultimate goal is a shift in social attitudes regarding the involvement of these organizations.

Since we were small children, we were encouraged by peers and others not to “rat” or “tattle” on others.  It was perceived that doing so was intended to hurt the other person by causing an enforcement action by parents, teachers, or others in a position of authority.  Only when the public, and  even more importantly, individuals close to the troubled person, perceive the system as geared toward helping the troubled person, rather than “locking them up and throwing away the key”, will the most significant societal shifts occur to attack the root causes of the active shooter crisis.

Ultimately, while this problem will never be fully solved, we must be driven by a shared sense of purpose to make a difference.  We need to play “long ball” and understand this will be a generational struggle for many years to come.  What we can do now is ensure the appropriate resources are directed in a balanced way to attack its source, which lies in our families, schools, and communities.  If we do it right, along the way we will bring healing and peace to a large segment of our society and leave a safer and healthier nation for our posterity.

Mike Harrigan is a retired FBI Agent and Law Enforcement Expert for Eagle Security Group.  He provides case consultation, investigative support, litigation support and expert witness testimony in the areas of: Use Of Force Continuum; Firearms, Training and Equipment; Range Safety Matters; LEOSA; Police Policies and Procedures including Wrongful Conviction Matters; Violent Crime Analysis; and Issues Related to Policing Indian Country; as well as providing Independent Reviews of Cold Cases and Missing Persons Cases.