Barry Spodak is psychotherapist and threat assessment expert. He served as a training consultant in the fields of threat assessment, protective intelligence, hostage negotiation and the prevention of campus violence. Currently, he is a trainer for the US Secret Service, the FBI, the US Marshals Service and the US Capitol Police. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
(CNN)Red flags. After every mass shooting, the talk almost immediately turns to the warning signs of the tragedy. Were there red flags? Why didn’t somebody do something? Why didn’t somebody do more?
I’ve been fielding these questions since 1981 when John Hinckley shot President Ronald Reagan. In the wake of the assassination attempt, I was one of a handful of mental health professionals brought in by the US Secret Service to try to answer these questions and find a better way of differentiating between people who simply say worrisome things and people who intend to act on them — between people who might make a threat and people who actually pose a threat.
Fortunately for all of us, forensic psychologist Robert Fein and Secret Service Special Agent Bryan Vossekuil found a way to do just that. With funding from the Secret Service and the National Institute of Justice, they studied and interviewed an extensive list of notorious assassins and in 1997 published research that identified patterns of behavior and thought that were precursors to actual attacks.
They found the red flags, including preoccupation with violence or mass attacks, anger related to a history of loss and failure, expressed need for attention or notoriety and a history of menacing behavior.
The researchers didn’t stop there. They created a methodology to answer the questions: In context, is this behavior truly a red flag? If so, what does it mean — is an attack imminent? And most importantly, how can a community use its support network of local resources to intervene and get an angry potential attacker off of the path to violence?
Since that time the methodology of Behavioral Threat Assessment has been successfully adapted by a wide range of federal agencies including the Secret Service, the FBI, the US Marshals Service, the US Capitol Police, most prominent colleges and universities and a growing number of major corporations, to identify and mitigate the risk of targeted violence.
Now, for the first time, a bipartisan bill named the Threat Assessment, Prevention and Safety Act (TAPS) has been introduced in the House and Senate to help states and local communities head off mass attacks before they even start by setting up multidisciplinary threat assessment units in each state. They would serve as a central contact point for reports of threatening behavior and offer assistance and support to communities to react effectively.
The bill has drawn widespread bipartisan support with over 100 co-sponsors from across the political spectrum. It will begin by creating a task force of highly experienced threat assessment experts who have been using the methodology successfully for years. They will identify and recommend best practices specifically formulated to work in local communities with the goal of preventing deadly attacks. This will give states, cities and counties the time-tested tools, used by federal agencies, to employ when needed.
But how do we know that behavior threat assessment — and by extension, this bill — would work? We can identify in previous shooters the red flags that the multidisciplinary threat assessment units would be trained to detect. Take the behavioral history of the recent shooters in Parkland, Florida, Dayton, Ohio, and Isla Vista, California. Each of these shooters had previously exhibited behaviors that serve as tripwires or warning signs in a behavioral threat assessment.
Among them were statements of an interest in committing suicide or in destructiveness toward the world at large, recent acquisition of weapons, direct or indirect communications of threats and withdrawal from life pattern and attempts to establish a legacy by providing a rationale for a violent attack.
In fact, in each case, the behaviors drew the attention of law enforcement, but there was inadequate follow up because no prosecutable crime had been committed. In each case, the total pattern of worrisome behavior remained siloed in different parts of the community. In each case, there was no trained threat assessment investigator available to analyze the pattern of an emerging threat.
Most importantly, in each case, there was an opportunity to detect the threat and intervene. With a properly trained multidisciplinary threat assessment unit, these shooters could have been prevented from taking innocent lives.
I’ve been teaching behavioral threat assessment for over 30 years and not a month goes by that I don’t get a call or email from a federal investigator, school administrator or human resources director who successfully identified an individual planning an attack and intervened by getting them help before they acted. At those moments I’m reminded of the words of former Secret Service Director Brian Stafford “It has to be about prevention, because you know that by the time you’ve drawn your weapon, you’ve already failed.”