Halsey Frank: Actionable intelligence regarding mass shootings

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The recent mass shootings at the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, New York and the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas were unspeakably horrific. My heart breaks for the parents, relatives, friends, teachers, and neighbors in those places that have become the object of so much death and destruction.

While mass shootings are not the most deadly crime problem facing our nation, there are far too many of them, they are deeply disturbing, and they are a symptom of something terribly wrong.

As long as people commit violent crimes, there will be a need for good, fair, and effective law enforcement. It’s not the only thing needed, but other responders  are not suited to interdicting an actively violent situation. Unfortunately, emerging information makes it appear that law enforcement was not good and effective in the Uvalde shooting.

Law enforcement is local by nature. It works best when those who enforce the law work with the community they are policing and know it personally, when they have good policies and practices, they are trained in those policies and practices, and they act on those policies and practices.

In addition, by the design of our federated system, local law enforcement has primary responsibility for controlling crime. Federal law enforcement’s role is limited, supportive, and secondary.

All law enforcement is most effective when they work together and cooperate.

Maine has its share of all the problems everyone else does, including threats of violence at school. We just have less of them. But we still have to be vigilant.

Four years ago, as United States Attorney, and in response to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, I convened a working group to study the threat of school violence and make recommendations. The group included representatives of the Maine Attorney General’s Office, the Maine Department of Education, the Sheriff’s Association, and the three federal law enforcement agencies with the most experience in threat assessment and protection: the FBI, the United States Marshal Service, and the Secret Service.

Together, we surveyed the history of mass violence in general and school violence in particular. We analyzed some of the legal obstacles to investigating threats against schools. We reviewed literature on school threat assessment and response. We hosted a roundtable discussion among law enforcement and educators.

We concluded that current best practices include establishing a culture of caring that educates people and encourages them to notice when someone appears to be troubled, and to say something about it, because in most cases of mass violence, there were signs of trouble in advance. In addition, best practices include multi-disciplinary threat assessment teams to evaluate threats using the pathway to violence model, and to implement responses appropriate to the threat.

The teams are composed of representatives of the professionals with relevant expertise and authority: educators, mental health professionals, and law enforcement. They are organized, authorized, and have processes for evaluating threats and deciding what actions to take in response to those evaluations.

The current thinking is that mass shooters are on a pathway to violence with specific behavioral markers that can be used to identify, assess, and manage those who are on the pathway. Those markers include harboring a grievance, experiencing stressors, exhibiting concerning behaviors such as self-harming, making concerning communications, planning and preparation, and acquiring firearms.

Many of those markers appear to have been present in the cases of both the Buffalo and the Uvalde shooters. People just didn’t take them seriously enough.

That’s where the threat assessment teams come into play. The teams use their expertise and the pathway model to evaluate the immediacy and severity of a threat and to implement an appropriate response. That appropriate response can range from doing nothing, to monitoring the situation, to getting a person counseling, to dispatching law enforcement to intercept an imminent threat of serious violence.

Current thinking is also that law enforcement should not wait, but should engage and try to neutralize an active shooter. That doesn’t appear to have happened in Uvalde either notwithstanding reports that its police department had a SWAT Team and conducted active shooter drills.  (Federal and state law enforcement in Maine conducted active shooter drills pre-pandemic.)

We need to understand why these protocols didn’t work in Buffalo and Uvalde.

In February of 2019, I wrote a memo to the state Attorney General and Commissioner of Education summarizing our group’s work and recommendations, including the creation of regional threat assessment teams. The last I knew, Maine was pursuing some of those recommendations, and the US Attorney’s Office was inventorying service providers around the state to create an indexed compendium of resources available in the event they are needed.

But best practices are worthless if you don’t implement them.

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Halsey Frank was born and raised in and around New York City and nearby Englewood, NJ. He graduated from the Dwight Englewood School, Wesleyan University and the Boston University School of Law. After law school, Halsey worked for the Department of Justice for 34 years, first as a civil litigator and later as a criminal prosecutor and civil attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. In 1999, Halsey moved to Maine where he worked as a civil attorney and criminal prosecutor in the U.S Attorney’s Office until 2017, when he was nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate to be Maine’s U.S. Attorney, the chief federal law enforcement officer for the District of Maine. Halsey retired from the Department of Justice in February 2021. Prior to becoming a U.S. Attorney, Halsey was active in local affairs, including the Portland Republican City Committee, the Friends of Portland Parks, the Friends of the Portland Public Library and the Maine Leadership Institute. He previously authored a column entitled “Short Relief” that appeared in The Forecaster regional newspaper. His views are his own.

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