We don’t necessarily agree when President Donald Trump and others in the media recently said that the mass shooting at a Texas church on November 5, 2017 “isn’t a guns situation” but instead “a mental health problem at the highest level.”

At Hillard Heintze, we provide advice and guidance once we have developed sufficient information that a subject of concern is deemed a threat. In these types of cases, we attempt to identify the motive of the individual and if they have the capability to develop or act on an opportunity to attack one of our clients. We focus on a person’s behavior more so than on statements or the severity of any mental illness.

Solely Diagnosing Mental Illness Would Not Have Saved Lives in Texas

Many public officials and media pundits have weighed in with comments on the Texas shooting such as “mental health is your problem here,” and calling the shooter a “very deranged individual” with “a lot of problems over a long period of time.”

As I have mentioned in my blogs, the vast majority of people in the United States who suffer from mental illness are law-abiding citizens. Although untreated mental illness is certainly an issue in this country that needs to be addressed, our experience has shown that solely diagnosing this affliction will likely not prevent acts of targeted violence such as we witnessed in Texas.

At the U.S. Secret Service, We Knew That Mental Illness Was Not the Primary Cause of Targeted Violence

I found this to be true for many years in my role as the Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center. At that time, many law enforcement officials believed that attacks on public figures are behaviors of deranged individuals without rational or understandable motives; they, therefore, believed that perpetrators of these crimes must be mentally ill.

In most cases, however, mental illness was not the primary cause of targeted violence behavior. Based on research conducted at the Secret Service, we now know that attacks on prominent individuals are the actions of persons who see assassination as a way to achieve their goals or solve problems, which requires a fairly rational process. With respect to motive, this is likely the case at the Texas Church; this was a rational plan to the shooter, one that he put into action to achieve specific goals.

We found that in almost every case — even those in which the attackers were seriously mentally ill — an attack was a means to achieve an end, such as calling attention to a perceived problem. Moreover, in cases where mental illness clearly played a role in attacks, symptoms of mental illness generally did not prevent the person from engaging in attack-related activities, such as rationally developing an attack strategy. Most mentally ill attackers and, as we term this in our industry, “near-lethal approachers” were capable of organizing and executing an attack.

What Research Has Taught Us About Attackers

The mental health histories of attackers and near-lethal approachers studied by the U.S. Secret Service included the following: [1]

  • Many had contact with mental health professionals or care systems at some point in their lives, but few indicated to mental health staff that they were considering an attack on a public official or figure.
  • Almost half had histories of delusional ideas, but few of these ideas led directly to a near-lethal approach or attack.
  • Few had histories of command auditory hallucinations.
  • Relatively few had histories of substance abuse, including alcohol abuse.

As opposed to solely focusing on a mental illness diagnosis to prevent violence, we adhere to the methods used in behavioral threat assessment: the formal, methodology-driven process of gathering and assessing information about persons who may have the interest, motive, intention, and capability of mounting attacks.

We know that people who committed acts of targeted violence in the United States demonstrated discernible attack-related behavior. This pathway behavior is often observed by people in the subject’s life.

We consider these behaviors to be the early warning signs; the idea that most assassins and near-lethal approachers engage in similar attack-related behaviors is consistent with our understanding of what is involved in mounting an attack. An individual must select a target, locate the target, secure a weapon, travel to the vicinity of the target and execute their attack. We look for evidence of concerning behavior that includes:

  • An interest in targeted violence. Manifestations of such an interest include gathering information about mass murder.
  • Behavior that has concerned others.
  • Comments or admissions to others, including on social media, that reveal thinking about or planning of an attack.
  • Suffering from despair or depression.
  • History of stalking or harassment.
  • Purchase or otherwise acquisition of a weapon around the same time as they develop or hold an inappropriate or unusual interest in targeting others.

9 Warning Signs We See in the Texas Church Shooting Based on Media Reports to Date

  1. In 2012, while stationed at an Air Force base in New Mexico, Kelley was court-martialed and sentenced to a year’s confinement for abusing his wife and child. The Air Force’s chief prosecutor at the time told the New York Times and NBC News that Kelley broke his stepson’s skull.
  2. He escaped from a mental facility.
  3. Two years later, soon after he was given a bad conduct discharge for his crime, Kelley was cited for animal cruelty after neighbors told police he viciously punched his dog outside his trailer home, according to a report from the El Paso County sheriff’s office. Court records show the case was dismissed after he paid a fine.
  4. His behavioral problems appear to have started much earlier. A former girlfriend, Brittany Adcock, said Kelley engaged in years of harassment, bordering on stalking, after a brief relationship nearly a decade ago, when he was 18 and she was only 13. The relationship lasted for about four months, but Kelley would harass her with phone calls from blocked numbers and Facebook messages from fake accounts for years afterward, she said in an interview. Adcock said she once called police to try to file a complaint and had to change her number to stop Kelley’s calls. “He just started getting really weird,” Adcock, now 22, said.
  5. He acquired weapons even though, per federal and Texas state law, he should not have been able to legally purchase a weapon due to his U.S. Air Force conviction for domestic assault and subsequent court-martial. The Air Force failed to report his convictions to the FBI.
  6. Domestic problems may have triggered Sunday’s shooting, as well. Authorities said on Monday that he had sent threatening text messages to his mother-in-law. She sometimes attended First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs but was not there on Sunday when Kelley opened fire.
  7. He last contacted Adcock about six months ago via Facebook, when he sent her a topless photo of someone else he had found online and appeared to think it was her, she said.
  8. Kelley’s classmates from his Texas hometown described him as a “loner” who became increasingly disturbed as a teenager. “I know his parents had him on heavy doses of meds in middle school,” said Reid Mosis, 26, who attended school in New Braunfels with Kelley from Grade 6 through Grade 9. “A lot of friends that knew him said he was too sick in the head to deal with by senior year of high school.”
  9. Mosis also said that, in recent years, Kelley shared posts on Facebook about his assault weapon. A cached photo of Kelley’s Facebook page, which was deleted in the wake of the shooting, showed a photo of a rifle under which Kelley wrote, “She’s a bad bitch.”

We know that acts of targeted violence are rarely impulsive acts. The attacker’s behaviors are concerning and often observable in advance of attacks – and a mental illness diagnosis will not, by itself, give a threat assessment professional the chance to prevent the incident.

We use a combination of investigative skill and corroboration to gather the information and evidence to make a thoughtful assessment of the threat an individual may pose to a target. Once our assessment is made, we develop and implement plans to monitor the individual and to intervene, as appropriate, to prevent an attack. We pay particular attention to the individual’s motives and attack-related behaviors. We also look closely at the systems (family, work, community, criminal justice, social media, mental health, and social services) with which the individual is involved as these are key to assessing and managing a potential threat.

The most accurate – and tragic – statement I have seen on the Church Shooting came from a New Braunfels native, Courtney Kleiber. She said on Facebook that she was close with Kelley in middle and high schools and that he had slowly changed from a “normal” kid into one with emotional or mental problems: “Over the years we all saw him change into something that he wasn’t,” she wrote. “To be completely honest, I’m really not surprised this happened, and I don’t think anyone who knew him is very surprised either.”[2]

It’s all of our jobs – you and us – to do everything we can to prevent the next act of targeted violence.

[1] 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).

[2] Reporting by Joseph Ax and Gina Cherelus in New York; Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Lisa Shumaker) Copyright 2017 Thomson Reuters.


Photo Credit: ABC News

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