Editorial: Ex-FBI agent emphasizes role of speaking up to help prevent mass killings

  • Retired FBI special agent Katherine Schweit, author of the new book "Stop the Killing: How to End the Mass Shooting Crisis," emphasizes the importance of alerting authorities to behaviors that could signal a potential tragedy.

    Retired FBI special agent Katherine Schweit, author of the new book "Stop the Killing: How to End the Mass Shooting Crisis," emphasizes the importance of alerting authorities to behaviors that could signal a potential tragedy. Courtesy of Katherine Schweit

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 9/22/2021 8:58 AM

The public conversation follows a familiar pattern after every mass shooting in America. Hot debates are renewed over calls for more restrictions on gun ownership and for more and better access to mental health care.

Both of those are valid debates, of course, but a retired FBI special agent who has worked on many mass shooting investigations adds a needed component of the solution that doesn't get nearly as much attention.

 

All of us.

In their Cops & Crime column last week, Chuck Keeshan and Susan Sarkauskas described the appeal from former special agent Katherine Schweit for more advance warning from the public when someone is acting so erratically that he or she might be planning a devastating attack.

Schweit, who spent some time years ago as a Daily Herald staff writer before she began her FBI career, is the author of "Stop the Killing: How to End the Mass Shooting Crisis," a new book aimed at compiling lessons authorities have learned over the years about the causes and circumstances of mass killings. One of her strongest messages: "The public is the most valuable resource that we have for stopping this type of targeted violence, and they're the least engaged."

Schweit observed that in the chain of people who become involved with a mass shooter, law enforcement personnel are usually the last to become aware of signs that might have suggested a tragedy was being planned. The first people to see behaviors that might indicate the potential for a tragic attack are family, friends and co-workers, she said.

"There is predictable planning and preparation that goes into these incidents," she said, "and all of that planning and preparation is done in a way that people can see."

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When people speak up, it helps avert a crisis.

"We know that," Schweit said. "Not on a hunch. We know that from research."

This is not a call for some Big Brother-like tattling on each other every time someone does something peculiar. But it does emphasize that if we see certain actions -- a person suddenly buying weapons, cutting off communications with others or exhibiting any of many behaviors that seem out of character for that person -- we can become part of the preventive solution to mass murders.

Few of us are likely ever to know someone who would commit a mass atrocity, so it's not like we need a massive program to make every American aware of the psychology of mass murderers. Nor should we simply give up the difficult and controversial drives for sensible gun controls and more accessible mental health services.

But it is useful to reflect on the value of speaking up. Action on guns and mental health certainly must be part of the solution to the crisis of mass shootings plaguing America. But with or without changes in public policy, personal awareness will always be a key factor to help authorities avert a potential tragedy.

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