By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University
The tragedies that occurred in the El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, shootings bring to light the inherent danger within our society, involving individuals who have psychological problems that lead them to make such devastating decisions. Similar to past domestic terrorist incidents, media reports indicate that the shooters had either a troubled past or had made statements in the past that reflected a propensity toward violence.
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According to Reuters, the Dayton, Ohio, shooter had a troubled past in high school and may have developed a hit list of fellow students that he wished to either kill or harm. This suspect also had a history of threatening women and even murdered his own sister.
In this incident, the shooter wore a mask, a bulletproof vest and hearing protection, which are indicators that warning signs may have existed prior to the shooting. Collecting these items indicates that someone may be planning an attack. For example, someone obtaining a mask and a bulletproof vest should be an immediate concern by friends or family members and should compel further examination of why these items are needed.
Other domestic terrorism cases such as the San Bernardino shooting involved a suspect who had years of extremism ideology. He was described as someone who wished to travel with a terror group to carry out attacks.
Prompt Reporting Is One of the Most Effective Ways to Prevent a Mass Casualty Event
From my experience in criminal investigations and law enforcement, citizens who provide tips regarding suspicious behavior, threatening statements made by family members or associates, or statements of terrorism ideology are one of the most effective ways to stop incidents before they occur. These tips are important, because they can initiate an investigation to determine if the threats are credible.
This is especially true with the risk of school violence. Police agencies are typically very quick to investigate statements made by students that indicate that they may be a threat to others.
It is important to note, though, that just because an investigation is made into someone who has made threatening statements involving violence, that does not ensure that law enforcement will be able to immediately intervene to prevent a mass casualty incident.
If probable cause does not exist to make an arrest associated with threatening statements, law enforcement may depend on family members and friends to continue to monitor individuals who may pose a future threat. Some of the warning signs in addition to threatening statements include changes in behavior, irrational thinking, collecting weapons and comments on social media.
I have also found that many citizens are apprehensive about reporting suspicious behavior, which may occur for several reasons. One reason is that citizens don’t feel that their observations rise to the level of what should be reported. An example may occur when someone hears statements by a family member or associate that involve a vague threat of violence without that person having an available means to carry out the threat.
However, it is important to note that it is better for citizens to report suspicious behavior that turns out not to be a credible threat than to be hesitant to report behavior that does result in a fatal mass casualty incident.
Information Supplied by Tipsters Helps to Solve the Investigative Puzzle
Criminal investigations are often a puzzle. Someone who calls in a tip regarding threats, the purchase of firearms or statements of terrorism ideology may not be enough for the cavalry of SWAT team members to come rushing in.
However, that information may be an important part of the investigative puzzle. Reporting suspicious behavior or acts may be the missing piece of the puzzle that investigators look at when they are already monitoring someone’s suspicious behavior.
For example, I was once involved in one such case shortly after 9/11. A diligent tour boat captain in Miami, Florida, anonymously reported the suspicious actions of a passenger. That passenger took pictures of the Port of Miami and asked how closely a jet ski could approach the port before being apprehended by law enforcement that provided security in the area.
This simple tip resulted in a multi-agency investigation and a subsequent counter-terrorism arrest. That individual attempted to purchase explosives specifically to bomb the Port of Miami about a month after the tour boat operator called in the suspicious behavior.
Reporting Information Also Alerts Law Enforcement to New Potential Threats
If an individual is not already on law enforcement’s radar as a potential threat, reporting suspicious behavior may alert law enforcement personnel of a new potential threat. When this situation occurs and depending on the severity of the threats, law enforcement often shares inter-agency intelligence and information with other agencies.
A good example of this cooperation involves the different intelligence fusion centers that exist throughout the United States. Law enforcement officers from local, state and federal agencies work together through the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (also known as NSI).
The NSI places tips on suspicious behavior on a national platform and reduces the limitations that commonly occur due to jurisdictional boundaries. For example, a tip made from someone in Atlanta may be correlated with intelligence gathered in another jurisdiction or state, which could thwart a potential domestic terrorism incident.
Another reason someone may be apprehensive about making a report of suspicious actions or statements is out of concern for retaliation. However, tips can be made anonymously, and someone may provide law enforcement with information about suspicious behavior without leaving any contact information. While it is more advantageous for law enforcement for a tipster to provide contact information so that follow-up questions may be asked, citizens are welcome to provide anonymous tips.
A third reason that citizens may be apprehensive to report suspicious statements or actions is because they are not sure where to make the report. There are different options for citizens who wish to provide information that may potentially prevent a tragedy.
One option is to contact local law enforcement. They can take the report and share information with other key stakeholders to prevent a mass casualty incident.
Another option is to call Crime Stoppers or the FBI. Citizens, especially those who wish to remain anonymous, can contact their local Crime Stoppers hotline. Tips can also be reported on the national Crime Stoppers hotline at 1-800-222-TIPS. Tips regarding criminal or suspected terror activity can be reported to the FBI online.
It is everyone’s responsibility to take an active role in reducing the risk of mass casualty tragedies by reporting suspicious behavior. As a result, everyone should remain diligent in reporting observations or statements overheard by family members or associates, which may make a vital difference in preventing a tragedy.
About the Author
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski will be speaking at the International Human Trafficking & Social Justice Conference at the University of Toledo on the topic of human trafficking in September 2019 and will be sharing some of his research on human trafficking in Central America. Dr. Sadulski will also be speaking at the Southern Criminal Justice Association’s Annual Conference in Nashville, Tennessee in September of 2019 and will be traveling to Central and South America to further his research in the fall. In addition to domestic speaking engagements, Dr. Sadulski has spoken in Europe and Central America on topics associated with human trafficking, narcotics trafficking, and police responses to domestic terrorism. Dr. Sadulski has over twenty years of experience in the field of homeland security and law enforcement. He has been a faculty member with American Military University since 2011.