How Crunching Data Can Help Police Stop Spree Killers
- 9:30 AM
What if the police officers racing to a deadly mass shooting could know, ahead of time, whether they should trust or ignore first-witness reports? What if the brave men and women responding to heartbreaking scenes like those in Newtown, Connecticut and Littleton, Colorado could protect themselves – and save more victims – by knowing what to expect?
Thanks to a growing body of analytics tools, we can develop detailed profiles of such horrific events and the people behind them, even with only minimal information reported from the scene. These findings could help police anticipate probable outcomes and adjust accordingly in real time, potentially saving more lives.
In the swirl of panic, confusion and misinformation during the Columbine massacre, 13 people were dead or dying while the attackers – unbeknownst to the police – had already committed suicide. The first responding officers prioritized securing the school’s perimeter and waiting for backup, instead of immediately following the two shooters back inside the building. Some victims eventually bled out and passed away during this delay.
Years later and almost 2,000 miles away, police were still searching for a second shooter three hours after the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. They believed the witness reports that in addition to the killer who lay dead, another armed gunman had escaped and fled.
What police didn’t realize in both of these cases was that of all active shootings that occurred in the U.S. over the last half century and yielded multiple casualties, less than 2.23 percent had been carried out by dual gunmen. Columbine was the rare exception. However, there has never been a case on U.S. soil that met what police expected to find in Newtown based on the following description by disoriented witnesses: one rampage shooter who blew a hole in his own head while another was trying to escape.
But the police didn’t know that.
This isn’t the police’s fault, of course – mass murder is an extreme aberration. Our leaders could argue – perhaps appropriately so – that it doesn’t make financial sense to train new officers on aberrations. However, basic information such as multiple attack weapons on scene, a large number of victims, and attack location can allow officers to better assess and respond to these crimes. As I outlined previously in Wired, these cues can help us predict which mass killers will choose to die.
And an even closer look at the attackers who kill themselves provides more details that should help police officers and other first responders. Because there are two ways rampage shooters attempt suicide: by their own hand, or by cop.
The key is predicting which path the shooters will take based on the nature of their target.
In the most in-depth study of its kind, I recently analyzed the pre-attack lives and crime-scene behaviors of all U.S. mass shooters who attempted suicide during their attacks. In this sample (n = 73, from 1990-2010), there were a number of shooters whose attacks met the FBI’s formal definition of terrorism:
…unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a Government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.
The critical finding was that the shooters who met this definition were extremely unlikely to attempt suicide by their own hand. Unlike attackers at workplaces, schools, and public business, the terrorist mass shooters who struck government buildings (and in one case a church) almost exclusively planned to die via suicide by cop.
This makes sense, because suicidal terrorists go to great lengths to disguise their desire to die. They want those who judge them (and if their fantasies come true, worship them), to believe that they were purely ideologically motivated killers with no suicidal inclinations whatsoever.
Yet my analyses – through multinomial regression, chi-square, and ANOVA statistical tests – showed there was not a statistically significant difference between the lives of terrorist shooters and the lives of school and other public shooters. This was especially true when it came to the presence of mental health problems, social failings, vocational struggles, family conflicts, or precipitating crises.
And all three of these shooter types – terrorist, school, and other public locations – were about equally likely to pen a suicide note or leave an explanation that revealed their suicidal tendencies. But because of the suicide terrorists’ attempts to camouflage their mental illnesses and true intentions, only one in the entire dataset of U.S. mass shooters over the past two decades was willing to blow a hole in his own head.
This unwillingness to shoot themselves was not the case for attackers at workplaces, schools, or public businesses. In those scenarios, 89 to 91 percent of the shooters attempted suicide by self-harming methods such as firearm or poison.
These patterns have significant implications for improving emergency response tactics and saving lives. For example, police responding to mass shootings at government installations or other terrorist targets should anticipate that the perpetrator is likely to attempt suicide by cop, and prepare accordingly for the mortal risks of a likely firefight.
But when arriving at other attack locations like schools, the police should try to put more immediate pressure on the perpetrator. In those contexts, shooters are more likely to kill themselves or surrender when the authorities close in.