Following incidents of mass violence, people yearn for answers. The need to make sense of the “why” comes out strong in many people’s minds. Why did the perpetrator feel compelled to carry out such a tragic act, affecting the lives and communities of so many people?

Did the timing of businesses reopening after a year of being closed (or having restrictions on attendance) factor in? The isolation certainly did not help those coping with mental illness; however, this should only be a factor if the perpetrator was experiencing symptoms in the planning stages and if it influenced their decision to act.

The list of questions goes on and the answers we receive are often subjective and rarely are the right piece of the puzzle when it comes to understanding the why behind tragic events. However, there is an angle we can rely on when we are looking for answers — the HOW.

The HOW is protective intelligence.

What pre-incident indicators were overlooked or hidden in the days and months leading up to the event? What steps were involved in the Pathway to Violence? Experts in the field of protection rely on the attack cycle to see ahead of threats, and I recently discussed this concept on how pre-operational surveillance factored into the Nashville bombing and Capitol Riots with Torchstone’s Scott Stewart.

The Attack Cycle — How did this begin?

Before mass shootings occur, there is the “before” (pre-operational surveillance) where the target location is selected, often out of a handful of options. Here, the site of the incident is visited (often multiple times, if it’s a crowded space) and a plan is formed.

I assure you — the perpetrator did not decide to wake up and select the location at that moment. When did the plan start to develop? What other locations did he consider before picking that location? Knowing the other targets the shooter considered and surveilled is key for intelligence purposes. To be blunt, surveillance footage is a great tool for investigators AFTER the attack, but doesn’t help prevent the crime from occurring.

As the attack cycle progresses and the perpetrator is able to access weapons and travels to the target site for the attack, the chances of preventing the violence is highly unlikely. Being aware of the early stages of the attack cycle and the common signs exhibited will be invaluable to our safety and security in years to come.

Here are a few examples of signals that can help point to early stages in planning:

  • Social media – This can offer a window into the mindset of the perpetrator (or the shooter). The shooter’s target selection will make little sense to you, but will make perfect sense to him/her.
  • Threats against minorities or law enforcement — Did the shooter participate in rallies or online forms against certain sub groups of people? Were they adverse to authority (law enforcement)? Was the shooter self-radicalized online?
  • Associations – Did the shooter signal attention to others ahead of time?
  • Time and distance variable – Did they drive by multiple locations, e.g., HQs and the CEO’s residence?
  • Behavioral and criminal history – Is there any evidence of recent arrests or adverse civil actions?

Our nation has unfortunately developed a skill in reconstructing these types of events and mass violence experts keep a very close eye on patterns and what is being shared, supporting a practice of “No Notoriety” and discouraging copycats. The Violence Project is a leader behind this effort. The organization, led by Dr. Jillian Peterson, is a nonpartisan research center and think tank dedicated to reducing violence in society, and has a database of over 175 mass shootings.

Understanding the facts and staying focused on the HOW — not the WHY — will be essential as we look for ways to prevent future mass shootings.

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About the Center for Protective Intelligence

By every metric, the role of protective intelligence is growing increasingly important for your security program. The Center for Protective Intelligence is Ontic's approach for sharing our expertise through content and community building in order to support the mission of physical security professionals of keeping people safe.

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