The case of Travis Reinking, the 29-year-old who killed four in a Tennessee Waffle House, is not unfamiliar to behavioral threat assessors. It involved several key tenets, which collectively addressed, could potentially prevent yet another tragic shooting. These include the following:
- The targeting of several individuals, not just one
- The importance (or lack) of information-sharing between law enforcement agencies
- The avoidance of direct threats, but other communication via social systems
In Threat Assessment, “Random” Target Switching is a Pattern
Those of us conducting behavioral threat assessments to identify individuals with the motive, intent and capability to carry out targeted-violence attacks know that would-be attackers often consider multiple targets. These targets may be in different jurisdictions, with various law enforcement agencies and security organizations responsible for protection.
Reinking exemplifies this pattern. On April 23, 2018 — as I wrote this blog — he was captured by authorities, though this was not his first interaction with the law. In fact, Reinking’s history of mental illness and aggressive behavior was already well-documented by several protective agencies.
It is this information — several cases of switching targets augmented by concerning behavior — a threat assessment professional uses to prevent individuals from committing a worse crime. For Reinking, these instances include the following:
- In May 2016, Reinking told deputies from Tazewell County, Illinois that musician Taylor Swift was stalking him and hacking his phone; he also alleged his family was involved, according to media accounts. At that time Reinking agreed to go to a local hospital for an evaluation after repeatedly resisting the request, according to the sheriff’s report.
- Another sheriff’s report said Reinking barged into a community pool in Tremont, Illinois last June, and jumped into the water wearing a pink woman’s coat over his underwear. Investigators believed he had an AR-15 rifle in his car trunk at the time, but it was never displayed. No charges were filed.
- In July 2017, U.S. Secret Service agents arrested Reinking after he crossed into a restricted area near the White House and refused to leave, saying he wanted to meet President Donald Trump. Reinking was not armed at the time, but at the FBI’s request, state police in Illinois revoked his state firearms card and seized four guns from him, according to authorities.
- Before he entered the Waffle House, Reinking stole a BMW from a dealership.
Information-Sharing Can Prevent Tragedies
It is critical that law enforcement agencies implement information-sharing programs when detecting patterns of behavior in known, would-be attackers. In Reinking’s case, the U.S. Secret Service did an outstanding job in initially ensuring he was not in possession of weapons. Comparing inappropriate behaviors among protective entities when a subject “switches targets” could potentially aide in the prevention of targeted violence. The fact that the U.S. Secret Service and Taylor Swift’s private security providers could have valuable information to share would be mutually beneficial to help make sound decisions based on a more accurate threat assessment of a person’s behavior.
The Secret Service did implement some information-sharing by conducting a threat assessment on Reinking following his White House trespassing. Their protective intelligence methodology takes into account the possibility that an individual’s actions may involve weapons acquisition and possession. In turn, the Secret Service and the FBI coordinated with local law enforcement to investigate Reinking and remove firearms from his possession.
This coordination allegedly fell through when relatives returned these weapons to the subject. Ultimately, a more thorough communication between parties may have prevented Reinking from receiving his weapons back.
Direct Threats May Never Come
As we continue to discuss Reinking’s behaviors, including switching targets and law enforcement’s need to emphasize information-sharing, one issue is abundantly clear: once an individual comes to the attention of law enforcement and security providers, an examination of their social systems — family, work, community, criminal justice, mental health, and social services — are the most promising keys to assessing and managing those who may pose a threat of targeted violence.
We have noted through many behavioral threat assessments that these perpetrators rarely make a direct threat to their targets, but may instead communicate intentions — or demonstrate troubling behavior or proclivities — to or on their social systems. As more of Reinking’s past unfolds, we should continue to examine what information — even in hindsight — could have been used to save lives and keep him from this violent rampage.
 Fein, R. & Vossekuil, B. Protective Intelligence and Threat Assessment Investigations: A Guide for State and Local Law Enforcement Officials. U. S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice: Washington, D. C. (July 1998)