The senseless loss of twelve lives in Colorado yesterday has spurred Hollywood entertainment houses and movie distributors to wonder whether they should initiate new physical security precautions to protect moviegoers from a horrible set of circumstances that were unimaginable until now. And today, a DHS-sponsored video explaining how employees should react (“run, hide, fight”) if an active shooter incident erupts in the workplace went viral on YouTube. (See Hillard Heintze in the News, August 8, 2012)
Were the shootings in Aurora preventable? I’ve been asked this question several times today already. The short answer is “Yes, perhaps.” But not by building a physical cordon of protection around every movie theater in the country. It’s much more effective to gain insights into the very small percentage of the population that poses this kind of threat – and, through these insights, to limit the opportunities for harm. Far more often than not, individuals who pose a threat to others – and are capable of acts like this – have, in one facet of their life or another, raised concerns in others. How? Through specific behaviors. Through statements. Through postings online. To whom? Family and friends. Teachers and co-workers. Even to law enforcement and mental health practitioners. By themselves, many of these early signs of trouble don’t indicate the potential for violence. But viewed together, they can suggest a pattern of escalation or an increase in risk to others. When these snippets of information are shared, the probability and opportunity for expert analysis and intervention increase dramatically. For example, the red flags in this case are already coming to the fore. James Holmes’ psychiatrist notified University of Colorado Denver’s threat assessment team expressing concern about her patient’s behavior, but because he was dropping out, no further inquiry was made. When contacted just hours after the shootings by ABC News, Holmes’ mother allegedly told the reporter her son was likely the alleged culprit, saying, “You have the right person.” How could this information have been leveraged to prevent the shootings? The so-called Brady Law, passed in 1993, prevents people judged mentally ill from buying firearms by having their names entered into a database. In other words, Holmes’ purchase of guns might have been prevented had a court ordered a mental health treatment. Rather than establishing a “cordon of protection” around every movie theater in the country, lives can be saved by creating a circle of communications around individuals of concern – through protective intelligence, information sharing and a careful coordination of insights across experts in many different disciplines. If we do that better next time, the loss of these lives will have contributed to saving others.