As the national headlines broke a few days ago, reporting on the gunman who shot and killed two people at a mall in Columbia, Maryland on Saturday, January 25, news anchors, reporters and media producers across the country quickly started making calls as they scrambled for sound bites and insights from “mall security experts.”

These calls come in often.  In 2012, after Adam Lanza shattered Newtown – and all of us throughout the nation – the media wanted to speak to an “elementary school security expert.”  After James Eagan Holmes killed 12 people during a midnight screening of the film The Dark Knight Rises, the ask was for “an expert in theater security.”

Expertise is not unique to location

Sometimes I want to see these requests as a disheartening sign that our nation as a whole has a great deal more to learn about how and why these events occur – and how to prevent so many of them from destroying lives with so little apparent warning. But when I get on the phone with journalists and news media investigators, I am patient. I get it.  Unless preventing violence is your mission and career – your lifelong learning – it’s much easier to characterize these violent explosions in terms of where they occur, which is obvious to all of us, than to ascribe them to behavior, which is so much less transparent.

The term “targeted violence” is not widely recognized in this country

“Searching for experts in security for malls or schools or factories or offices,” I explain, “is not the right way to find answers – and it’s misleading.  Fundamentally, these tragic events are the actions of an individual who is on a path to violence.”  I define the term “targeted violence” for them.  I explain that it isn’t random at all.  Quite the contrary, it is the result of an understandable and often discernible process of thinking.  I emphasize that a potential attacker’s behavior is fundamental to identifying his or her intentions.  And I explain that this knowledge is powerful.  And needs to be shared with others.  And can save lives. And then I view the calls as an enormous opportunity.  This process of learning, as a nation, how to identify behaviors of concern, differentiate between posing a threat and making one, and managing the threat in sophisticated ways well before a crime has ever occurred will take a few conversations.  One call at a time. It is important to remember that in most incidents of targeted violence in public places like schools and malls, despite prompt law enforcement response, the shooting is over by the time they arrive.  Columbia Mall and Sandy Hook Elementary are no exceptions. What are you prepared to do? What can you do to help your office, school, mall or business prepare to prevent an act of violence?  It depends. If you are responsible for security:

And if you are not responsible for security, find out who is – and start asking questions. What are your thoughts on this?  Where are you addressing these priorities well?  What are the challenges you’re bumping up against?  Post a comment, and I’ll reply.

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