The Challenges of Tracking Potentially Dangerous People

With the Tucson, Ariz., shootings, the nation was once again witness to a mass homicide that had connections to an Institution of Higher Education (IHE).

In the aftermath of Virginia Tech (2007), some states have enacted laws that loosen student privacy issues when it comes to investigating or interventions related to threatening or excessive/extreme behavior. Some states and Congress may revisit these privacy and reporting issues once again in light of the most recent tragedy in Arizona, especially since a member of Congress was involved.

Generally, this is an area where litigation often occurs due to suspected violations of personal privacy (intervention) or because of allegations of failure to intervene before violence occurred (after the fact).

Prevention Can’t Be ‘One Size Fits All’

A colleague of mine recently stated, “there is no one template or system to prevent these incidents from occurring”, the U.S. Secret Service has profiled campus violence and found no common threat indicator or pattern. Pre-incident behaviors and violence on campus studies indicate campus violence is rarely a random act.

In the Secret Service report findings (linked above), all forms of targeted violence were found among the incidents reviewed. The identified incidents dealt with domestic violence, workplace violence, stalking and obsessions, sexual assaults resulting in homicide, individualistic stressors, subjects acting on delusional beliefs, as well as serial killers. IHE campuses essentially function as mini-societies that must deal with the same types of societal issues found in almost any city or town in the United States.

The same issues you may find with any neighbor in any community are similar to those found in IHE settings. 

Mental health issues have long been neglected in the United States, and in an economic decline, these are some of the first local social programs that get cut. We see this in other mitigation programs. How many emergency managers have been laid off in the past two years? This recent tragedy and the Virginia Tech tragedy in 2007 highlight a mental health problem that has no long-term solution. The debate on student privacy versus campus and community safety has been raging for many years with no clear answers and will continue as long we as are dealing with human beings.

Until someone develops a sixth sense for successfully forecasting violence before it occurs, picking out broken humans before they act out violently, we will all have to continue to address and plan for such incidents living in a free society. One thing is for certain, people need to learn to report behavior that threatens others; keeping silent only contributes, and in some cases, may enable violent crimes to occur because people do not desire to get involved. We often hear in the aftermath of such violence, the behavior from the individual (suspect), “was not a surprise.” It seems many people knew Loughner was a problem; he scared many people, close friends, schoolmates and IHE faculty.

Free Speech Must Remain on College Campuses

Some people living with an IHE setting may be unable to deal with the responsibilities of being tolerant of free speech, respecting conflicts of opinion, contrasting political ideologies, and navigating through political rhetoric. These issues are the life blood of an IHE campus. People have been protesting for or against these issues since the start of higher education. Part of the responsibility of being a U.S. citizen is nicely summed up in the movie, the American President:

“America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ‘cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.”

Some folks cannot handle that responsibility. Anyone intent on committing violence is not going to respect the laws of our land; only civilized people tend to respect the law. Making new laws in a knee jerk reaction to take away rights from law-abiding citizens just further erodes the rights of already law-abiding citizens; it doesn’t impact criminals because they don’t respect the law. Knee jerk legislative reactions also create problems for campus officials who are forced to implement poor public policy decisions made to placate voters. It still doesn’t solve the problem.

Had Loughner driven a car into the crowd of people, some folks might be calling for banning motor vehicles and requiring background checks on new driver’s licenses, or requiring bollards in shopping center parking lots.  That doesn’t seem realistic or practical.

But it drives the ratings…

Related Articles:

If you appreciated this article and want to receive more valuable industry content like this, click here to sign up for our FREE digital newsletters!

About the Author


With more than 30 years experience, David is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) currently administering the emergency management program at Santa Clara University in the heart of the San Francisco Bay Area's Silicon Valley. David managed the UCLA Office of Emergency Management for seven years and pioneered the development of the campus' award-winning "BruinAlert" system. David championed development of emergency plans, policies and procedures in the aftermath of Virginia Tech in 2007 and consults higher education institutions on emergency management issues. David is a subject matter expert in mass casualty incident management, emergency notification systems, comprehensive plan development, emergency organization, EOC design and operations, crisis communications, threat and vulnerability assessment, disaster recovery, grant administration and auditing. In 2009, David and other campus emergency managers provided consult in the development of the first incident management course developed by FEMA/EMI specifically for higher education (IS-100HE, Introduction to the Incident Command System (ICS) for Higher Education). Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety magazine.

Leading in Turbulent Times: Effective Campus Public Safety Leadership for the 21st Century

This new webcast will discuss how campus public safety leaders can effectively incorporate Clery Act, Title IX, customer service, “helicopter” parents, emergency notification, town-gown relationships, brand management, Greek Life, student recruitment, faculty, and more into their roles and develop the necessary skills to successfully lead their departments. Register today to attend this free webcast!

Get Our Newsletters
Campus Safety Conference promo