|Psychologist: Warning signs can help spot potential mass shooter |
Tami Abdollah and Deborah Barfield Berry
It might be hard to know where to start when trying to identify suspicious or problematic behavior, especially after a mass shooting. But experts said it’s important not to dismiss or ignore red-flag behaviors simply because you don’t want to cause trouble.
USA TODAY spoke to Reid Meloy, a board-certified forensic psychologist who has researched warning behaviors preceding violence, consults for the FBI, and has consulted on criminal and civil cases in the United States and Europe. He has identified eight key warning signs of potential shooters.
“The important point here is these acts are not impulsive acts,” Meloy said. “These are planned for and prepared for days and weeks in advance.”
Meloy’s key warning signs:
Pathway: This is when people plan and prepare the details of their attack, such as accumulating ammunition, buying firearms in secret or building bombs or other incendiary devices in their garage.
“People see this anomalous behavior, but they ignore it as a possible threat,” Meloy said. He noted it’s important to focus on the “discrete behaviors” rather than a person who might belong to a group different from you to avoid implicit and personal biases or prejudices. That said, Meloy noted “most of these individuals will be young males.”
Fixation: Somewhat self-explanatory, this is when a person might become fixated on someone or a cause so much that it leads to deterioration in their social and work lives.
Identification: This is perhaps the most important of the warning signs, Meloy said. It’s when a typically young male will assume a “dark identity.” He takes on an identity that shifts from a preoccupation with other mass shooters to wanting to become one himself. In Parkland, Florida, the shooter posted on YouTube six months before opening fire at the high school that he was going to become a “professional school shooter.”
In that case, “law enforcement failed to identify that as a flashing red light for the assumption of a dark identity, in the fact of chronic life failures,” Meloy said.
Energy burst: You might see an acceleration of “on the ground” behavior and a decrease in online behavior in the hours before an attack as the attacker prepares. In the case of the Capital Gazette shooting in Annapolis, Maryland, in 2018, the shooter was active on social media and then went dark in the two years before the attack, Meloy said. It’s important not to assume the person no longer poses a threat when they go quiet.
Leakage: This is the most common warning sign, when a person communicates their intent to attack to a third party. It occurs in 60% to 90% of targeted attack cases, usually in the days or hours before the attack.
It can look like a direct message on Twitter, a posting on Instagram or Tik-Tok, a still photo or video, or a verbal comment on a chat.
Directly communicated threat: The least frequent warning behavior is a direct threat to a target because a potential attacker doesn’t want to decrease their probability of success.
Novel aggression: A potential attacker tests their ability to be violent ahead of time, engaging in a one-off unusually aggressive behavior that is a test of their resolve to carry out a homicidal act. This could include picking a fight or killing an animal.
Last resort: The potential attacker will say things that indicate an urgent need to act violently within a specific time. They might say it’s “up to them” or use other words to communicate that they must act.