This week, in our second installment of Rethinking Active Shooter, I thought I’d discuss a serious aspect of the challenge we all face in prevention, knowing when to (and feeling like we can) speak up to the proper authorities when we detect that something is not right with someone around us.
I didn’t want to get him into any trouble …
I was driving home one evening with my wife in the car. Ahead of us was a pickup truck weaving erratically. At first I thought he must be texting or something. But the pattern continued and it became evident the person was driving-while-intoxicated. “What should we do?” My wife asked from the passenger’s seat. “I don’t know” I said, “Call 911?” I remember agonizing over the decision until the image of a head-on collision came to my mind. I fell back a safe distance and I made the call to 911.
Pam Mellskog, a staff writer for the Times-Call in Longmont, Colorado shared a similar, but much more nuanced story.[i] She said, “I felt wrong for doing right” recalling how she reported a desperate family to the police for begging from passersby at an intersection. Struggling for their very existence, Mellskog had plenty of visual evidence that the children were not being provided for. But she had to overcome wondering, “Was I a snitch for calling the police on a family trying to survive anyway they could?”
These are the same internal struggles your students or employees face when deciding to reach out for help on behalf of an employee showing violent tendencies. Mellskog decided to report because she knew her local police had social resources and would help this family out of crisis. She did it, because the family needed help and she trusted her community resources would help, not punish.
These stories illustrate a common phenomenon. It is difficult to get people to report other people doing something wrong. There can be many reasons for the reluctance to report which include “I didn’t want them to lose their job” or “I didn’t want to have a confrontation with the person.” This reluctance seems to hard-wired. People just do not like to tattle.
In 2010, the United States Secret Service, Department of Education and Federal Bureau of Investigation published a report in response to the Virginia Tech incident on April 16th, 2007, when Seung Hui Cho killed 32 students and faculty in a campus-wide shooting rampage.[ii] The goal of the study was to attempt to understand the scope of the problem of targeted violence in institutions of higher learning. One key element of the report was to capture, if possible, the factors that may have motivated or triggered attacks. What they discovered is illuminating.
Most of the time, there are no tell-tale signs of impending violence. But when there is …
We must act quickly and effectively. Of 227 incidents the authors analyzed, 79 perpetrators exhibited one or more pre-incident behaviors. The key take-away from this data is that 29% of the time there was an observable behavior prior to the violent incident. The authors of the study also said that, “Concerning behaviors were observed by friends, family, associates, professors, or law enforcement in 85 incidents (31%).” The Police Executive Research Forum in similar research have reported the percentage higher at 50% of active shooters make their intentions known prior to the incident.
Take this story for example, “On April 10th, 1996, upset over losing his friendship with the victim, a 19 year old student confronted his former friend on campus, fatally shot him in the back of the head, flipped him over with his foot and fired another shot into his chest. Months prior to the incident, the victim reported to the institution’s administrators that the subject had been harassing him by sending e-mails and calling numerous times. The subject, who had completed his degree requirements in December 1995, was told by administrators to stay away from campus. On the day of the incident, in accordance with an agreement he made with the institution, the subject had informed the dean of his intended presence on campus that day. The subject had completed his degree requirements and was awaiting graduation.”
When these incidents are broken down, there are multiple failures in detection, reporting, policy and handling that allowed the subject to continue to escalate their behavior. More must be done to improve reporting and follow-up.
Dialing in detection
Detection and reporting have two hurdles to overcome. First is clearly understanding how to operate within the difficult balance between our national values to protect individual privacy versus the desire for the society-at-large to protect itself. Second, is overcoming the individual’s reluctance to “rat-out” a fellow human being.
Take for example the case of Jonathan Meline. Jonathan was a patient who had been in and out of Western State Hospital for 10 years. Western State Hospital is Washington State’s only full-security psychiatric institution. Jonathan had been harboring delusions that his parents were evil stand-ins. One night in October, 2012, Jonathan walked upstairs in his parent’s home and brutally murdered his sleeping father with a hatchet.
Jonathan’s mother contends the state failed to order her son to more restrictive treatment when he failed to report for mandatory medication appointments and did not warn her or her husband of Jonathan’s homicidal ideations. This reporting failure was likely due, at least in part, to the staff protecting Jonathan’s right to privacy because of the staff’s inadequate understanding of reporting policies and procedures. The other less forgivable reason is that Washington State severely underfunds treating the mentally ill. [iii]
Besides Better Mental Health Funding, We Need Better Reporting
The individual privacy rights of the individual are, no doubt, important. In many cases, however, the laws protecting these rights have exceptions when the subject displays or states any kind of threat or threatening behavior. Typically, the reluctance to report an individual exhibiting such behavior goes back to the hard-wired reluctance to “tattle.” Nevertheless, we must decrease the reporting threshold not only for employees, but for family and friends. So how do we overcome this and compel people to report?
In next week’s final installment of Rethinking Active Shooter, we’ll discuss different ways to be proactive in building more secure schools and workplaces.
[i] Pam Mellskog, Mommy Musings: A Reluctant Whistleblower, Times-Call, July 18, 2014, http://www.timescall.com/lifestyles/ci_26173838/mommy-musings-reluctant-whistleblower
[ii] Diana Drysdale, William Modzeleski, and Andre Simons, Campus Attacks: Targeted Violence Affecting Institutions of Higher Learning, USSS, USDOE and FBI, April, 2010.
[iii] Tacoma News Tribune Editorial Board, The High Price of Saving Money on Mental Health, The Tacoma News Tribune, March 11, 2013.
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