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AMU Intelligence Law Enforcement Podcast Public Safety Terrorism

The Ongoing Threat of Active Shooter Attacks

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Podcast with Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice and
William Balcerski, AMU Alumnus, Facilities Protect Supervisor at Lockheed Martin

Active shooter incidents are on the rise in the U.S. In this episode, AMU criminal justice professor Dr. Jarrod Sadulski talks to William Balcerski, who spent 26 years in the military and is currently the Facilities Protection Supervisor, Missiles and Fire Control Division, at Lockheed Martin and AMU alumnus about some of the factors contributing to mass shootings. Learn how the coronavirus, which is forcing people to be inside and online, is leading to radicalization and the “echo chamber effect.” Also learn about warning signs that someone may be planning to act and why now, more than ever, families need to take an intrusive parenting approach to monitoring children’s online activity and behavior.

Listen to the Episode:

Read the Transcript:

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Hello, everybody. Our guest today is William Balcerski. Welcome.

William Balcerski: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Yes. Today, we’re going to discuss the issue of active shooters, as well as lone wolf attackers, which is unfortunately, a topic that needs to get discussed because we’re continuing to see trends where this is continuing to increase across the United States.

But before we begin, let me discuss our guest and his background. William has been in law enforcement and through the Coast Guard for a total of 26 years, over 20 years as a federal law enforcement officer who worked in several different units throughout the country, including here in Florida. He’s also worked as a Reserve Deputy. He’s also been in the Coast Guard Reserves.

He’s worked as the Head of Security at Walt Disney and Pleasure Island. He’s also worked as a Universal security officer during the building of Islands of Adventure. He’s been a part of two tours in Iraq: Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom. So he’s currently employed with Lockheed Martin as the Facilities Protection.

Well, thank you very much, first of all, for your service and 26 years with the Coast Guard. Thank you.

William Balcerski: Thank you. I appreciate you saying that.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Absolutely. So mass shootings are defined as incidents in which four or more are shot. As of July 19th, 2020, there have been 305 mass shooting incidents in the United States. In June, there was a total of 95, which shattered the record of what had previously been seen in one month, which was 51 in June of 2019. What do you account is the reason behind the increase in active shooting situations across the United States currently?

William Balcerski: Well, I think it’s important to recognize that it’s not just one factor. There’s a lot of different influences, a lot of different reasons on why a certain individual would take up a certain action. One of these factors would be what we call the echo chamber effect. The echo chamber effect is the environment where a person encounters information or opinions that reflect or enforce their own.

Now, in the situation of mass shootings, it’s very difficult to try to define why somebody does something. It could be as simple as a young individual who is not strong-minded is getting picked on at school and they have access to weapons and feel that they need to defend themselves, all the way to an individual who is not mentally stable and feels that they need to act out on their feelings.

So it’s important to recognize right out of the gate, that it’s not one particular thing. We can’t compartmentalize it. It’s a lot of different factors that are brought together.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Yeah, that’s definitely, definitely a good point. What are some indicators that somebody may be planning a lone wolf attack or a mass shooting incident?

William Balcerski: The important thing to realize when we talk about lone wolf attacks and mass shooting incidences is to pay attention to the behavioral aspects of the person. If a person has been acting a certain way for a long period of time, and then now they’re acting a different way, that’s a red flag.

And when you put all of these red flags together, you have a numerous amount of red flags together, it paints a picture. And it may not exactly tell you exactly what’s going to happen, but it gives you that warning sign and that’s critical to get involved during that time period.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Right. Yeah. That’s a good point. I think social media is also a huge factor in this because it’s often been discovered after the fact when law enforcement goes and looks at the social media account, that there were perhaps coded or cryptic threats made through social media.

And I think that social media platforms have an important responsibility to immediately report incidents that occur on social media that perhaps indicates somebody is planning an attack. I think that also bullying, especially in the cases of school shootings, is a major contributor.

And also, there’s indicators, I’ve seen cases where people begin to sell off or give away the items that previously meant a lot to them. There’s radicalization that can especially occur through the internet. Would you agree?

William Balcerski: Oh, absolutely. I think the isolation from family and friends, the talk as if it’s scripted, if the individual starts talking like he’s reading from a piece of paper, the unwillingness or an ability to see or discuss other people’s views. Have we seen that recently? The sudden disrespect towards others, increase in level of anger. These are all factors to where you could see that this could be an issue.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Right. That’s a great point. What are some common targets of mass shooters and why? Why are those targets selected?

William Balcerski: There’s many different reasons. As you say, the majority of the mass shootings take place in commerce, education facilities, very little in government, but it depends on the individual.

[Related: Terrorism Remains a Threat During the Coronavirus Pandemic]

If it’s a younger individual, like as you said, maybe a bully situation, then the school is necessarily the target, and it could be a certain person at that school that has triggered this feeling within them. But then now they’re going to take it out on everybody because they’ve been self-inflicted victim and it seems to be a pattern more and more.

A lot of these people, they also want to make a statement. Once you get to the point of radicalization, the important thing is to get the statement out there.

So you see incidences like what happened in Las Vegas. Now, things are still cloudy, even after all these years on exactly the motive behind that. If one individual was, to say, wanting to make a statement, that particular venue, during that particular time, would be the perfect place to do it. If you were to think that way.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Right. It’s interesting. We’ve had so many, there are so many different examples. Las Vegas, that was a terrifying situation. The results of the Pulse nightclub in your area, up in central Florida, as well as down in Fort Lauderdale at the Stoneman Douglas High School.

So they continue and there seems to be such a wide range in targets. And I wonder what is drawing people to those specific targets? Is it because they’re looking for somebody or a specific group, or is it are they looking for to inflict the most amount of casualty and pain? It’s a difficult question and I think there’s a lot of variables.

So, and this is an important question. If someone finds themselves in an active shooter situation, what do they do?

William Balcerski: Training is key. In the day of active shooters, becoming more and more reality. I think it’s key that people understand that there’s a stronger chance that you’re going to get placed in these situations.

Typically, what we recommend and what I’ve always recommended is to escape. If you’re in an active shooter situation and you have a chance to escape the area, escape the area. Notify your local law enforcement. Call all cars, when it comes to situations like that.

In the event that you are unable to escape, hiding and barricading yourself is one of the best things that you could possibly do to survive these kinds of scenarios.

And certainly, when I say this last point, understand that this is just life and death, right? You never want to attack the actual individual that’s doing the shooting. It would be a self-defense mechanism. It’s a fight-or-flight kind of thing. But if you are in a situation where it’s him or you, then obviously confront the attacker, but that is something that we do not recommend you do unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Right. Right. And I think in terms of barricading, what I’ve read previously is it’s important to get windows covered, to move shelves, desks, whatever heavy objects exist up against the doors to try to minimize the risk of being a target. If you’re secured in a room, say at a school or a facility, what are some additional ways that you can barricade yourself?

William Balcerski: Well, you have to think outside the box and I think it’s important that you do that. As you mentioned, tables, chairs, desks, anything that’s going to present an obstacle for the individual.

One other thing that we have to talk about is cover and concealment. Now, we in law enforcement use cover and concealment all the time, but for the average person, they may or may not know what that means.

Concealment is your ability to hide from something and cover is the ability to hide, but also the ability to stop a round. So if you’re hiding behind say a desk, that provides you with concealment, but if that individual was to fire rounds, those rounds would go through the desk and most likely hit you.

So when in the moment, it’s very hard to think like this, unless you’ve been in the industry, unless you’ve been in this world, security world, for a long time, but you want to position yourself to where not only are you concealed, but in the likelihood of rounds being sent down range, so to speak, you’re safe from those rounds.

Blocking windows, like you said, making sure that access points to where you are, are almost impossible to get to, and then you could start getting into a place where you can survive.

The number one thing, honestly, let’s keep it simple. The number one thing is locked doors because when individuals are coming through, say hypothetically, of course. Individuals are walking through a school. Well, they’re just as amped up as everybody else. And if not more, because there could be other factors involved, drugs, adrenaline, whatever.

Their sole purpose is to get to as many people as possible. Now, obviously they’re not in the right frame of mind, but are they going to waste time trying to get a locked door open or are they going to move down the hall and try to find a door that’s unlocked?

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Right. That’s a great point. Path of least resistance.

William Balcerski: That’s it. So you just want to make sure that you make that individual’s job as hard as possible to get to you and your friends, and that’s the greatest chance to survive.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: That’s a great point. As we’re continuing to talk about active shooters, lone wolf attacks, I just think it’s so important to emphasize that we’re on the increase.

And one of the reasons that I wonder if it’s related is the coronavirus pandemic. Is it stress-related to the coronavirus pandemic? As we’d mentioned a little bit earlier, so far this year, we’re 305 mass shootings, and it’s significantly more than where we were at in July of last year. Do you think that the pandemic is related to the increase in shootings that we’re seeing?

William Balcerski: Absolutely. I mean, it’s certainly a factor, right? So some things to remember about active shooter and lone wolf terrorism at that point is we can’t quantify how much a person was radicalized. Right? So we don’t know what the threshold of what a person believes in as far as ideological philosophies.  

And there’s no single profile. We don’t know what individuals are doing when, and that’s the tricky part, but let me throw something at you. I think COVID is definitely a factor, but I think it’s today’s society.

We could both agree that the internet and social media is a powerful tool to spread extremism and ideology, whichever that is, whether it’s political or racial or radical, regardless. It’s a tool being used today.

So now we introduce COVID, which drives everybody inside. And what did people do when they get inside? They go on the internet. Well, now you have a captive audience and now you introduce your narrative. Again, whatever your narrative is.

And you force feed through these media vessels for the next six months and you sit back and you watch the country tear each other apart. I mean, we’ve been at each other’s throats for the last, what six, seven months.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Right. Which is consistent with the pandemic.

William Balcerski: I think that it definitely has something to do with it. And when we talk about how we get somebody that acts. What’s the threshold from somebody who’s radicalized to where they actually act? And that’s the difficult part of not only lone wolf terrorism, but in today’s society as well. I mean, you see the political environment that we’re in right now.

It’s very difficult because everybody’s inside because of COVID, you have a captive audience, you have a vessel, which is the internet and all of the apps. I mean, we’re buried in our phones. So we’re constantly exposed to this media narrative and we’re getting fed this narrative every single day. And it’s certainly a contribution, without a doubt.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Right. I think it creates a lot of stress. I think the pandemic itself has been very stressful. So when you have radicalization coming through the internet and through social media, coupled with people that are already stressed, I think that that’s probably a contributing factor to why we’re seeing such an increase in these shootings.

How can parents and community members be proactive and monitoring for signs that somebody may be becoming radicalized and may be a threat to others?

William Balcerski: Well, I call it intrusive parenting, right? I mean, parenting as a whole has changed over the last 30 years. Would you agree with that?

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Oh, definitely.

William Balcerski: And there’s a lot more single parents than what there used to be. And there’s a lot more influences on family and children now than there were ever before. And you see certain patterns.

We talk about social media. These kids are getting iPhones at six, right? So the detachment from the traditional family values, I think, and this is just my opinion, is a contributing factor to why we’re starting to see more and more problems.

What do I mean by intrusive parenting? What I mean by is interacting with their child on a daily basis, spending time with your family, spending time with your children, noticing behavioral patterns.

If your child becomes extremely reclusive and starts acting differently, well, if you were a major part of that child’s life, you would see that difference right away. But if you were very distant from your child and didn’t really take parenting all that seriously, you may not see these factors.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Right. That’s a great point. And I think too, that parents really need to be looking at their child’s social media because it’s going to reveal if they’re being bullied and they could perhaps intervene before that child builds up so much hatred, pain toward whoever’s bullying them that they would go into acts of violence.

So I think it’s just so critically important that parents understand and you’d mentioned TikTok, which is definitely a platform that is used by human traffickers. There’s a lot of danger in social media and I think it’s really important for parents to overcome that feeling of, well, my child’s getting older. They need space. It’s not that way at all.

Now is the time more than ever that parents really need to be intrusive. And I like that, intrusive parenting. And that’s exactly what it is. It’s supporting the child through discipline, as well as reviewing social media to catch problems in advance.

What does a parent do if they do notice that their child’s changing, perhaps they have changed their appearance. Now they’ve gotten into gothic clothing, whatever it may be. And they’re indicating that, there are indicators that they may become a threat to somebody. What does a parent do?

William Balcerski: Well, obviously communication is the key. And sometimes these kids will shut down and not let you in. It’s very difficult, but you as a parent need to be extremely resolved in identifying what the issues are and getting those issues addressed.

It has been my experience throughout life that individuals who talk about their problems and work out their problems are less likely to act and less likely to suppress those feelings. And if you are intrusive about your parenting, then maybe you can identify these factors when it’s still in the youth phase of that issue and resolve these issues before it gets to the point of no return.

Communication is key, even to the point of counseling, if you need to, and making sure that the kids understand that they can come to us, as parents, and get the help that they need without any kind of repercussions or being mocked about it. So communication is absolutely key.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: That’s a great point. And I think there also comes a time that parents are going to need to get help if their child has become radicalized, if the child is making threats toward somebody at school or the school itself.

If parents have the resource of local law enforcement, local law enforcement should be notified if a child begins to make threats to determine how credible those threats really are. And I think that often parents aren’t real sure what to do, but that’s the answer.

It’s once the child has crossed over to where they could potentially become a threat, the parent really needs to get law enforcement involved, as well as of course restrict any access to firearms, I think.

What are the common signs that are often overlooked that someone may be preparing for a lone wolf attack or to become an active shooter?

William Balcerski: Well, they are consistent patterns when it comes to people who are about to act out. What’s difficult, again, is to try to quantify how much a person is radicalized. It’s very difficult to figure out what level is your belief system in.

But there are certain indicators and over the course of time, law enforcement has identified these certain behavioral factors. Sadly, it’s post-incident that we learn these factors, but increase in social media. We talked about the behavioral aspects. They typically tend to announce something before they do it. Now, whether that’s on social media or telling a friend, or what have you, and then they typically get dismissed, like “Oh, Jimmy’s just crazy. That’s the way he is. He’s not serious. I don’t want to be at the problem.” It gets dismissed right away. And instead of actually being raised, say, “Hey, we may have a problem here.” It gets dismissed. And then it actually is a problem.

And then I think you touched on an important point with the weapons. We’re not going to go down that road. I mean, it’s weapons. And Second Amendment in this country is a very sensitive topic. And regardless of where you stand on that topic, as gun owners, you have a duty and responsibility, especially if you have kids, to keep your weapons in a location where they have no access to them.

Now, could these kids get weapons? Absolutely. But this is all stuff that we can take in account to help the situation and prevent a major incident from happening.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: That’s a great point. I noticed in your background you’ve got a lot of valuable experience in the field of security. How can large facilities that accommodate large groups of people improve their security measures against these type of attacks?

William Balcerski: Well, it starts with training. I can tell you that I have been working at Lockheed Martin now for about two, two and a half years. I started with them right after I finished my military career and we conduct semi-annual active shooter training. And I will tell you that it’s a challenge.

You have a facility that’s got 6,000 people with all different belief systems, and you’re trying to get everybody on the same page. And it’s very difficult because you want everybody to be trained. You want everybody to know what they’re going to do, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

So a lot of people in these major companies will look at active shooter training as a burden, or “I don’t have time for this. What are we doing? You know, like this is stupid.”

And what they don’t understand is this is the reality. Lockheed Martin is a target and we have been for decades and the likelihood of an active shooter is there. So it’s very hard to convince people that the topic of preparing for an active shooter is important because we’re all in our bubbles, right? Until we’re not in our bubbles. And then we wish we had the training.

So when it comes to large facilities, large groups of people, I think getting them all on the same page is challenging, but I think it’s a mission that needs to happen and it needs to happen on a regular basis so that when an active shooter situation does take place, that people default to that training and we lessen the impact.

Can we stop an active shooter? It’s hard to say, but can we minimize it? Can we minimize the damage? Can we manage the situation? Absolutely.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Excellent points. I think you’re right. And I think training is absolutely critical and everybody believes that it could never happen to them, until it does. And clearly with the increases of mass shootings that we’re seeing across the United States, there’s a need for this type of training. What does it, briefly, what does the training typically entail?

William Balcerski: Well, I had the pleasure of going through the US Customs active shooter training course down in Marathon, Florida. And essentially, you have two different types of training when it comes to this.

You have the first responder training to where law enforcement assets are on scene and they’re trying to manage the situation and get in there and take care of the threat. But then you also have the individual training, the civilian, if you will, on what they need to do while they’re inside with the active shooter.

And we stress so much about not engaging the individual. And one of the reasons why, and this is sort of a law enforcement insider tip, is that any event that you’re engaging with suspect, and then law enforcement is introduced into that situation, they may not know that you’re not a bad guy.

And so while you’re trying to be superhero, now we introduce law enforcement who has no idea who the bad guy is and who the bad guy isn’t, and now you’ve compromised both of you.

And I think it’s important that we do the individual training, like we talked about: escape, hide, barricade, and then last but not least, defend yourself if you need to.

But then there’s the law enforcement aspect of how to enter the building, how to minimize damage, how to tend to the victims, neutralize the threat, secure the area, and then get into the investigation part. So it’s really a two-headed monster.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Ultimately, it’s important also for everyone to maintain situational awareness. If they see something out of the ordinary, somebody’s hanging around work, hanging around a facility that doesn’t look right. It’s important if they see something to say something. I think that a lot of these events could be mitigated if law enforcement was notified earlier. So I think that everybody has an important role in just maintaining that situational awareness.

So Mr. Balcerski, as we wrap things up, are there any remaining thoughts?

William Balcerski: Well, certainly I appreciate you having me on your show. It’s an honor and privilege to talk to you. And it’s important to realize that the challenge of solving these issues remains.

Lone wolf terrorism and active shooters are very hard to prevent, but we can manage the situation. And I think the more we get involved as a community and the more that we address mental issues, the less and less we’re going to have.

Now, the increase in all of the shootings recently, I think has a lot to do with the echo chamber. But it also has to do with the lack of intrusive parenting. If we can get a round turn on that, we can sidestep the gun conversation, because if you apply common sense to the gun situation, it takes care of itself.

But if we can address those social and behavioral issues, I think that we can make an impact on these situations.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: I definitely really appreciate you coming on the show today and sharing your background and knowledge with us.

William Balcerski: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Again, we’re speaking with William Balcerski. Thank you very much for joining us today.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate professor in the School of Security and Global Studies at APU. Jarrod was selected as the Coast Guard’s Reserve McShan Inspirational Leadership Award recipient for 2019. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security contraband interdiction and intelligence gathering.

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