What Does the FBI’s Latest Study on Active Shooters Really Mean?

In late June, the FBI released what it called Phase Two of the agency’s ongoing examination of active killer events that took place between 2000 and 2013. The recent report revealed very little that law enforcement professionals didn’t already know.

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In late June, the FBI released what it called Phase Two of the agency’s ongoing examination of active killer events that took place between 2000 and 2013. In Phase One of the study, researchers focused on the circumstances of the active shooting events — location, duration, and resolution of the attacks — but did not attempt to identify the offenders’ motives or any “observable pre-attack behaviors.”

The objective of the latest report “was to examine specific behaviors that may precede an attack and which might be useful in identifying, assessing, and managing those who may be on a pathway to deadly violence.”

How successful was the FBI's latest effort?

More importantly, who should be the primary audience for the findings?

Confirmation of Existing Assumptions

Law enforcement officers — especially those who have had firsthand experience in responding to an active killer incident, or investigating one after the fact — have enough experiential knowledge to draw some subjective conclusions about these offenders.

Consider some of our current, pre-existing assumptions about active killers:

  • Are single males (not in a romantic relationship) at the time of the attack
  • Had some manner of grievance against one or more individuals at the attack location
  • Experienced mental health issues just prior to (or at the time of) the attack
  • Spent at least some time planning their attack (at times even threatening its imminence)
  • Exhibited behaviors that (after the fact) could be construed as pre-attack indicators

The FBI sought in this latest study to examine data culled from 63 separate incidents to determine the accuracy of those assumptions.

Unsurprisingly, our suppositions turned out to be pretty accurate.

According to the FBI, three quarters of the subjects spent a “week or longer planning their attack.” Only a quarter of those included in the study were diagnosed with a mental illness, but almost all were “experiencing multiple stressors (an average of 3.6 separate stressors) in the year before they attacked.”

Those stressors include “financial pressures, physical health concerns, interpersonal conflicts with family, friends, and colleagues (work and/or school), mental health issues, criminal and civil law issues, and substance abuse.”

Importantly, the FBI said that mental health “is not synonymous with a diagnosis of mental illness.”

Undiagnosed conditions such as depression, anxiety, and paranoia may be witnessed by people close to the attacker, and either addressed directly with the individual, or reported to authorities.

The FBI said that on average, active killers displayed four to five “concerning behaviors over time that were observable to others around the shooter” such as problematic interpersonal communications, and/or “leakage of violent intent.”

The FBI said, “In the weeks and months before an attack, many active shooters engage in behaviors that may signal impending violence. While some of these behaviors are intentionally concealed, others are observable and — if recognized and reported — may lead to a disruption prior to an attack.”

Citizens on the Front Lines

This means that some of the most important players in the prevention of a mass killing are not sworn law enforcement officers — they are the co-workers, teachers, family members, and neighbors who are most likely to be close enough to the attacker to pick up on the tell-tale pre-attack indicators.

The trouble is, those individuals may not fully understand the behavior they’re seeing to be warning signs of impending violence. What’s worse, friends and family may even delay — or outright resist — reporting their observations to law enforcement because they don’t want to falsely accuse an individual of being a potential killer.

They may hear an individual utter some expression of violent ideation — whether verbal, non-verbal, or written — and chalk it up to “being nothing.”

They may even ignore outright threats of violent action.

The report said, “The successful prevention of an active shooting frequently depends on the collective and collaborative engagement of varied community members: law enforcement officials, teachers, mental health care professionals, family members, threat assessment professionals, friends, social workers, school resource officers…and many others. A shared awareness of the common observable behaviors demonstrated by the active shooters in this study may help to prompt inquiries and focus assessments at every level of contact and every stage of intervention.”

Law enforcement leaders must find ways to empower people to report their concerns. Police must educate the public about the warning signs to watch for. Officers and investigators also have to treat every reported concern seriously.

The FBI’s recent report revealed very little that law enforcement professionals didn’t already know.

However, it may not be police who are the primary beneficiaries of this new report.

Hopefully the document serves to better educate the public about their pivotal role in preventing future tragedies from happening.

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