We’re Having the Wrong Conversations About Safety

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Every time there’s a shooting at a school or a workplace, the arguments begin. We need more police officers stationed in the buildings. We need to arm teachers or encourage employees to carry handguns. We should invest in smokescreen systems or bulletproof partitions. Everyone should hide from the shooter. Everyone should run from the shooter. Everyone should confront the shooter.

It’s healthy that we’re discussing safety, but unfortunately, we’re talking about the wrong things. Nearly all the discussions concentrate on what to do when a shooter walks through the door. No matter what measures you’ve taken, at that point, you’re too late. Once someone who intends to do harm is inside your school or your business, all you can do is react. Whether you run, hide, fight, or something else, your school or business is going to be the site of violence and possibly death, permanently transforming the lives of everyone involved.

What conversations should we be having? Instead of reacting once the shooting begins, we should focus on how we can keep those wrongdoers out of our schools or our businesses in the first place. It’s a simple concept: if you can prevent someone from coming into your facility, he or she can’t cause mayhem.

That’s not my idea. It’s something I’ve learned from experts like those in the FBI and the U.S. Secret Service whose entire careers are focused on understanding and preventing acts of violence. When you think of the Secret Service, you probably imagine the brave agent who jumps between the President and a would-be assassin. Agents are trained to do that, but they put far more effort into making sure people with bad intent don’t get anywhere near the individuals they’re protecting.

Many people also operate under this concept that shooters and others who perpetrate mass violence commit sudden acts that result from some kind of emotional trigger. How often do you hear people claim that something must have made a shooter “snap?”

That’s nonsense. After extensive studies of mass shootings and similar events, the FBI has concluded that “these are not spontaneous, emotion-driven, impulsive crimes emanating from a person’s immediate anger or fear.” In other words, most of these high-profile violent events were not impulsive acts. The shooters coldly and carefully planned them, waiting for just the right moment to strike.

In my previous career as a violent crimes detective, I concentrated on domestic violence cases. I’ve often heard the myth that people who commit violence against family members were “pushed” into it or were “triggered” by something the victim said or did. Again, that’s nonsense. There’s a discernible pattern that offenders follow, and when law enforcement and the judicial system intervene in the early stages, there’s a marked reduction in violent acts.

Given those patterns and the fact these violent criminals plan so carefully, our focus needs to shift from reacting to keeping the acts from occurring in the first place. We need to think like the Secret Service agents who plan extensively for the President’s every move, creating rings of protection that deter potential criminals.

First, we need to become familiar with the signs and behaviors that usually precede a violent act -- like the threats and other behaviors that have been observed before 85 percent of school shootings. Second, we have to create cultures in which people aren’t afraid to report suspicious behaviors. Too many people are afraid of hurting someone’s feelings or accusing someone who may be innocent. After most shootings, we hear that the shooter showed signs of being dangerous, but nobody was willing to speak up. Similarly, we must share information. Police in one community need to talk with the county sheriff and their neighboring departments. And all parties to be trained in assessing threats through the use of lethality indicators.

Training is critical and can’t just be a one-and-done approach. One of the best kinds is the “tabletop” simulation in which multiple parties gather to discuss a simulated scenario. For a business, the simulation might involve department managers, the facility director, the head of security, and representatives from the local police and fire departments. An outside facilitator narrates a scenario, and everyone discusses their role and how they would respond.

If you really want to protect the occupants of your buildings, don’t waste time in philosophical arguments over what they should do if an intruder is present. Instead, do everything you can to keep that intruder from getting in there in the first place.

Mike McCarty is CEO of Danville-based Safe Hiring Solutions 

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