July 11, 2019
A new report released this week by the U.S. Secret Service concludes that the key to stopping mass attacks at businesses, schools, places of worship, healthcare facilities and government agencies is having an actionable prevention strategy in place that emphasizes reporting and intervention.
In its latest report, Mass Attacks in Public Spaces – 2018, the Secret Service documented 27 mass attacks across 18 states in which three or more persons were harmed. In total, 91 people were killed and 107 more were injured in locations where people should feel safe, including workplaces, schools, and other public areas.
Many of the key findings in both the 2017 and 2018 reports reflect similarities among the incidents and the attackers. For example, the majority of attackers elicited concern in others and two-thirds had histories of mental health symptoms or treatment. A majority of the attackers also had recently experienced significant stressors, with just over half of the attackers experiencing financial instability in that same timeframe. The study also found that half were motivated by a grievance related to a domestic situation, workplace, or other personal crisis.
“We know that law enforcement response and active shooter drills are really important,” said Lina Alathari, Chief of the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center. “But what’s even more important is we want to identify these individuals before they embark on the path that gets them to think violence is an option.”
Nearly all of the attackers in 2018 made threatening or concerning communications and more than three-quarters elicited concern from others prior to carrying out their attacks. All but four attackers made some type of communication that did not constitute a direct threat, but should have elicited concern. According to the report, some of these concerning communications included expressing interest in previous attackers, racist and misogynistic comments, referencing a desire to purchase a gun, and comments that suggest an aspiration to commit future violence.
“The findings emphasize, however, that we can identify warning signs prior to an act of violence,” the report states. “While not every act of violence will be prevented, this report indicates that targeted violence may be preventable, if appropriate systems are in place to identify concerning behaviors, gather information to assess the risk of violence, and utilize community resources to mitigate the risk.”
This year’s report emphasized that while there is no single profile that can be used to predict who will engage in targeted violence, focusing on a range of concerning behaviors while assessing threats can help promote early intervention with those rare individuals that pose such a risk.
“Systems can be developed to promote and facilitate such reporting, and people should be encouraged to trust their instincts, especially if they have concerns for someone’s safety,” the report states. “For example, several states have recently developed statewide reporting infrastructures that allow students and others to utilize a smartphone app to submit anonymous tips to a call center staffed by law enforcement. This type of program can facilitate not only a law enforcement response to reported threats, but also a community-level response to reports of bullying, suicidal ideation, self-harm, or depression.”