From school shootings to everyday counter-terrorism

CC Licensed Image from Secretive Ireland. Click for source.Mother Jones has a fascinating article on how America is attempting to stop school shootings by using community detection and behavioural intervention programmes for people identified as potential killers – before a crime has ever been committed.

It is a gripping read in itself but it is also interesting because it describes an approach that is now been rolled out to millions as part of community counter-terrorism strategies across the world, which puts a psychological model of mass-violence perpetration at its core.

The Mother Jones article describes a threat assessment model for school shootings that sits at an evolutionary mid-point: first developed to protect the US President, then to preventing school shootings, and now as mass deployment domestic counter-terrorism programmes.

You can see exactly this in the UK Government’s Prevent programme (part of the wider CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy). Many people will recognise this in the UK because if you work for a public body, like a school or the health service, you will have been trained in it.

The idea behind Prevent is that workers are trained to be alert to signs of radicalisation and extremism and can pass on potential cases to a multi-disciplinary panel, made up of social workers, mental health specialists, staff members and the police, who analyse the case in more detail and get more information as it’s needed.

If they decide the person is vulnerable to becoming dangerously radicalised or violent, they refer the case on the Channel programme, which aims to manage the risk by a combination of support from social services and heightened monitoring by security services.

A central concept is that the person may be made vulnerable to extremism due to unmet needs (poor mental health, housing, lack of opportunity, poor social support, spiritual emptiness, social conflict) which may convert into real world violence when mixed with certain ideologies or beliefs about the world that they are recruited into, or persuaded by, and so violence prevention includes both a needs-based and a threat-based approach.

This approach came from work by the US Secret Service in the 1990s, who were mainly concerned with protecting key government officials, and it was a radical departure from the idea that threat management was about physical security.

They began to try and understand why people might want to attempt to kill important officials and worked on figuring out how to identify risks and intervene before violence was ever used.

The Mother Jones article also mentions the LAPD Threat Management Unit (LAPDTMU) which was formed to deal with cases of violent stalking of celebrities, and the FBI had been developing a data-driven approach since the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) launched in 1985.

By the time the Secret Service founded the National Threat Assessment Center in 1998, the approach was well established. When the Columbine massacre occurred the following year, the same thinking was applied to school shootings.

After Columbine, reports were produced by both the FBI (pdf) and the Secret Service (pdf) which outline some of the evolution of this approach and how it applies to preventing school shootings. The Mother Jones article illustrates what this looks like, more than 15 years later, as shootings are now more common and often directly inspired by Columbine or other more recent attacks.

It’s harder to find anything written on the formal design of the UK Goverment’s Prevent and Channel programmes but the approach is clearly taken from the work in the United States.

The difference is that it has been deployed on a mass scale. Literally, millions of public workers have been trained in Prevent, and Channel programmes exist all over the country to receive and evaluate referrals.

It may be one of the largest psychological interventions ever deployed.

Link to Mother Jones article on preventing the next mass shooting.

5 thoughts on “From school shootings to everyday counter-terrorism”

  1. It may be one of the largest psychological interventions ever deployed.” Which is why it’s all the more concerning that there’s apparently no sort of (public) evaluation of it. What’s the effectiveness of classifying people of ‘at risk of radicalisation’ before and after they’ve had PREVENT training?

    My experience of the training – constructed around the showing of two vignettes from a DVD – was mystifying. The first was concerned with someone who ends up ordering offensive weapons off the internet and so attracts the attention of the police; it wasn’t clear what the connection with the ‘pre-crime space’ was meant to be in that case.

    The second was about a mentally unwell man who, after meeting some very attractive Iraqis in prison, tells his CPN that he’s planning to blow up a football stadium when his mum dies. Some care co-ordination and a kitten later, he’s abandoned the jihad and all’s well.

    The moral of these stories seemed to be that the police and CPNs should being doing their jobs, and that if you want a reasonable standard of social and healthcare then you’re better off threatening violence against others than just yourself.

  2. NRA insists that it’s only people with “mental illness” who commit school shootings. Then the politicians repeat that the shooters must have had “mental illness”. But then actual mental health professionals (on the science blogs I read, anyway) insist they’re usually the victims, rarely the perpetrators. On first glance it seems most shooters are found fit to stand trial, and were simply disenfranchised angry young men. It’s the vagueness that drives me up the wall. I assume by “mentally ill” we mean the state of mind the shooter was in, or else maybe politicians really, really need to specify conditions like bipolar or depression or dementia or whatever they obnoxiously insist predisposes the mentally ill to be THE ONLY people who ever commit school shootings, since the NRA still wants 4 year olds, teachers and church goers to have an armory of guns.

  3. I will mention the unmentionable. The magical pills you worship can influence people to do “bad” as well as “good”.

    If it is a bad outcome, you blame the mental illness.
    If it is a good outcome, you credit the magical pills.

    Psychiatry can only win, when people believe planned and coordinated acts of violence are a form of “mental illness”.

    What do you do with mental illness? You medicate it of course!

  4. I see ‘Prevent’ being a largely successful way of avoiding particularly dangerous incidents. Even if the selected individual is victim of surrounding affecting concerns, and crises. The whole ideology is to prevent greater fatalities and merciless actions. Therefore I believe because it benefits the greater good, there is an extreme value in practicing this tactic, by simply making it known to anyone of any type of red flag or signs of caution.

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