Normative Narratives

Transparency Report: Preventing Tragedy Revisited

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In the wake of Ivan Lopez’s Ft. Hood rampage, I posed a question to my readers; “can social media posts be considered ‘warning signs’ for violent / deadly behavior”? After another mass killing Isla Vista, Calif. a little more than a month later, the issue is again thrust back into the spotlight, this time calling police protocol into question:

A week after Elliot O. Rodger’s violent rampage in Isla Vista, Calif., that left six college students dead and 13 other people wounded, state lawmakers are now calling for an investigation of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office’s previous contact with Mr. Rodger. Some are calling for wholesale changes to how law enforcement officers respond to calls that someone could be a threat to himself or to others.

Sheriff’s deputies visited Mr. Rodger on April 30, just three weeks before his rampage, after receiving a call from his mother, who had been concerned by videos he posted online.

At the time, Mr. Rodger had already bought at least two firearms, which were both registered in his name. But sheriff’s deputies were unaware of that when they visited Mr. Rodger, because they had not checked the statewide gun ownership database. They also had not watched the videos Mr. Rodger had posted.

Law enforcement agencies across California have said that it is not necessarily standard practice to check the state gun registry before any check by officers on someone’s well-being. And the sheriff’s office has defended the six deputies who visited Mr. Rodger in April.

“When questioned by the deputies about reported disturbing videos he had posted online, Rodger told them he was having trouble fitting in socially in Isla Vista and the videos were merely a way of expressing himself,” the sheriff’s office said in a written statement.

“Sheriff’s deputies concluded that Rodger was not an immediate threat to himself or others, and that they did not have cause to place him on an involuntary mental health hold, or to enter or search his residence. Therefore, they did not view the videos or conduct a weapons check on Rodger.”

Kelly Hoover, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, would not elaborate on why no weapons check was done, and declined to confirm whether there would be an internal investigation of the visit.

Based on the information reviewed thus far, the sheriff’s office has determined that the deputies who responded handled the call in a professional manner consistent with state law and department policy,” Ms. Kelly Hoover, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office said in an email on Saturday.

After Mr. Rodger’s rampage in Isla Vista, Ms. Jackson co-wrote legislation that would create a “gun-violence restraining order.” If family members or friends alert law enforcement that someone poses a threat to themselves or to others, law enforcement would then be able to petition a judge to prohibit the person from purchasing firearms.

Ms. Hannah-Beth Jackson, the state senator who represents Santa Barbara, said she planned to introduce further legislation designed to keep guns from people who could become violent, including a major overhaul in protocol for how the authorities follow up on calls from family members expressing worry that someone could hurt himself or others. She said a mental health professional, who is trained to identify mental illness, should accompany law enforcement.

We need to completely re-evaluate protocols that are used when law enforcement is given info that someone potentially is a danger to themselves or to others,” Ms. Jackson said. “I think we need to check the gun registry. And then we have to find a balance for when it is appropriate for police to remove those firearms, and when it is not.”

My intention is not to place blame on the Santa Barbara police officers who initially responded to Mr. Rodger’s mother’s call; I am sure they followed procedure for such incidents. However, the procedure they where following certainly needs to be revisited. While it is impossible to preemptively identify all killers, a certain pattern has emerged from the three most notorious mass killings in recent American history; Sandy Hook, Ft. Hood, and now UC Santa Barbara. Recognizing this pattern, and updating police procedures, could provide a blueprint for how to prevent future tragedies and get people the help they need:

Step 1) Identifying a Potential Threat: In each of these incidences there was someone–either a parent, confidant, or mental health worker–who had reason to believe the future shooter was mentally unstable. These people either notified the police, or should have.

In a recent NYT “Room For Debate”, 6 experts weighed in on the question “Can Therapists Prevent Violence?”; notably, each expert agreed to varying degrees that red flags should be acted on, and there should be greater coordination between law enforcement and mental health professionals–a rare consensus for a feature which typically, as its name suggests, presents a number of differing views.

Step 2/3) Access to Weapons: Adam Lanza, Ivan Lopez, and Elliot Rodger’s all had access to weapons; Lanza from his parents, while Lopez and Rodgers had legally bought guns prior to their rampages. If somebody is deemed a threat to themselves or others, the next question should be “do they have access to guns?” (beyond the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms, direct access to a gun already purchased).

I applaud Senator Jackson’s proposed “gun-violence restraining order” plan to keep potentially dangerous people from buying guns. However, in a country where gun ownership is so pervasive, we must also consider whether these people already have direct access to a weapon.

 Step 3/2) Social Media Postings: Social media has become a window into people’s thoughts, beliefs, and actions. Adam Lanza’s social media posts showed a fascination with mass shootings, Lopez expressed a general disillusion with the world and sympathy for Adam Lanza prior to his massacre, and Mr. Rodger’s posted now infamous (and removed) videos detailing his personal issues on Youtube.

After a potential threat is referred to the police, an investigation of that person should begin immediately. If that person is known to have access to firearms, or has a social media footprint suggesting mental instability, this is pertinent information that police should be aware of before responding to a call (and not only for public safety, but also for the safety of the responding officers). The police should also be accompanied by a mental health professional, preferably one who has experience identifying someone who is trying to mislead investigators.

I am not talking about an in depth investigation, but rather a cursory search of weapons databases and social media outlets. This can all be done digitally and should not significantly delay police response times.

Preemptively identifying potential mass murders and placing them involuntarily under mental health surveillance based on the factors above is sure to be a contentious issue. Upon developing a new draft protocol, an open comment period including people suffering from mental illnesses, mental health experts, civil liberty advocates, law enforcement officials, and anybody else interested, should be initiated. Doing so would help develop a more effective police protocol that balances public safety and civil liberties (specifically for people with mental health issues).

Such a protocol would not prevent all mass murders–nothing can. Notably, it ignores those who obtain guns illegally (which if you ask a gun activist, 100% of criminals do, despite evidence to the contrary). It would also not help in the instance of an imminent threat. But it may have helped prevented any of the three tragedies mentioned in this post from occurring, and on that merit alone is worthy of serious consideration.

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3 thoughts on “Transparency Report: Preventing Tragedy Revisited

  1. Ben,
    The factor that has been overlooked in these shootings is the shooter’s taking of antidepressants or SSRIs. The young man from Santa Barbara was taking Xanax, Valium and perhaps other prescription medications. This is the cause of mass violence, military suicides, police brutality (many cops are on SSRIs) etc. Any discussion of large-scale violence doesn’t go far enough if these drugs are absent from the conversation.

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    • Hi Jerry,

      I agree with you that prescription drugs could definitely play a role, especially antipsychotics such as Xanax, although they certainly cannot take all the blame.

      I would say have police check for that too, but a prescription drug registry is much more contentious an idea even than a firearm registry. Certainly it should be part of the police questioning when someone reports another person as a dangerous threat.

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  2. Pingback: RIP NYPD Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu | Normative Narratives

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