Active Violence Situations – Understanding Prevention

Often thought to be not possible, the truth is, we can mitigate and prevent these violent situations from occurring. “Prevent” AAD – one the most crucial pieces of the PAAD Program is the Prevention component and prevention that is missing in most Active Shooter training programs we have reviewed.

As with many of you, I witnessed the news reports on the shooter who entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Philadelphia Pennsylvania on Friday, October 26, 2018. As with any of these situations, we know the incident will be followed by pundits who will each give their thoughts on the incident, and this situation was no different. I was watching one such interview where the expert, just recently retired from a federal position was asked, “how do we prevent future incidents from occurring?”. His reply told me that he was speaking outside of his comfort area or area of expertise as he stated. “there is no profile of an active shooter nor is there a way to identify everyone with mental health issues.” Although this is true, as with many others, he did not offer a solution to preventing active violence situations, or in this case, an active shooter situation.

So, the point of me writing this article today is to shed some light on some meaningful information. If you look across the board of what is available today, when we talk about active violence situations, everything is focused on the response to the situation and not preventing the situation. Have you heard the saying, “it is safer to prevent a fire than it is to put one out”? The same holds with active violence situations; we need to prevent the act of violence from occurring and as a last resort know how to respond to the situation as prevention removes the risk of harm. So how do we do this? Firstly, we must be willing to put the work in and give forth the effort that is needed.

Mental Health and Profiling

A consensus is we prevent active violent situations from occurring through mental health interdiction or by profiling the perpetrator of the violent act. The issues with these two approaches are many but let me ask a couple of questions of you so you can see for yourself why these approaches or philosophies do not work. Have you ever lost someone who died? Have you ever had a financial crisis or some other emotional stressor in your life? Did you go and kill someone because of these situations in your life? As with most of us, the answer to this is no; we have not acted violently toward someone because of the stressors we have found in our life because we have learned how to cope with emotional stressors. Similarly, not all actively violent people are mentally ill. When we look at many of the perpetrators in past attacks, we find they had been evaluated for mental health issues, i.e., Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people, wounded 25 others was found to be Depressed and had Anxiety, but he was determined not a threat to himself or others.

So how about Profiling the active violent person? Let me share some key excerpts from the Final Report and Findings of the “Safe School Initiative”; implication for the prevention of school attacks in the United States that was conducted by the United States Secret Service and United States Department of Education. In short, their findings revealed, “there is no accurate or useful “profile” of students who engaged in targeted school violence”. What is behind their conclusion and finding is this, “The use of profiles in this way likewise is not an effective approach to identifying students who may pose a risk for targeted school violence at school or for assessing the risk that a particular student may pose for a school-based attack, once a particular student has been identified. Reliance on profiles to predict future school attacks carries two substantial risks: (1) the great majority of students who fit any given profile of a “school shooter” will not actually pose a risk of targeted violence; and, (2) using profiles will fail to identify some students who in fact pose a risk of violence but share few if any characteristics with prior attackers.”

Predictive Behavior

The findings of the Safe School Initiative suggest that there are productive actions that educators, law enforcement officials, and others can pursue in response to the problem of targeted school violence. Specifically, initial findings suggest that these officials may wish to consider focusing their efforts to formulate strategies for preventing these attacks in two principal areas, here is one of those areas:

  • developing the capacity to pick up on and evaluate available or knowable information that might indicate that there is a risk of a targeted school attack.

Their suggestion found in 10 key findings of the Safe School Initiative study, here are five supportive results that I want to focus on with you:

  1. Incidents of targeted violence at school rarely were sudden, impulsive acts.
  2. Prior to most incidents, other people knew about the attacker’s idea and/or plan to attack.
  3. Most attackers engaged in some behavior prior to the incidentthat caused others concern or indicated a need for help.
  4. In many cases, other students were involvedin some capacity.
  5. Despite prompt law enforcement responses, most shooting incidents were stopped by means other than law enforcement

Rather than trying to determine the “type” of student who may engage in targeted school violence, an inquiry should focus instead on a student’s behaviors and communications to determine if that student appears to be planning or preparing for an attack. Rather than asking whether a particular student “looks like” those who have launched school-based attacks before, it is more productive to ask whether the student is engaging in behaviors that suggest preparations for an attack, if so, how fast the student is moving toward the attack, and where intervention may be possible. we call this “Predictive Behavior.”

Community Awareness

In addition to understanding Predictive Behavior or in other words, aggression and aggression escalation, we need to know what the average individual can make observations. As we have studied the commonalities in the violent incidents, we know that there is a planning stage, preparation stage, and then the commitment to act followed by the violent act itself. FYI, these descriptions I am providing are post activities to the first opportunities in identifying someone on the path to violence. I strongly suggest that everyone using Predictive Behavior receive training and certification within this area, and I will talk more about this later, but what about the untrained or certified individual? Merely on observations alone, we can build our team of observers through awareness. Just by making people aware of what considerations to report we can intercede in the pathway to destruction someone may find themselves on. Although these reports can often come at a time the aggressor has reached or is about to enter the crisis stage of an attack, we can intercede in preventing the attack.

Information Management & Reporting

Before we can ask the general public to report observations, the communities we reside and the organizations we work or participate in must have an effective means of communicating these observations to someone who can do something about it. If you are fortunate enough to have an Intelligence team or unit within your law enforcement agency or organization, you have a leg up on this task as you have qualified individuals who are trained to siphon through raw information and qualify the same information as a concern or non-concern of your community or organization. If you are not fortunate to have this expertise you have to create an effective manner in which information may be qualified before opening the floodgates of receiving the unqualified information and having to act on every eventuality. This is not something that should be left to the layman, as we know in the case of the Parkland School Shooting in 2018, another preventable incident. No less than 23 calls were made to law enforcement regarding the assailant Nikolas Cruz, in addition to a call to the FBI made in January 2018. Law enforcement was not the only receptacle of information not properly qualified in Predictive Behavior, on September 23, 2016, a peer counselor notified the school resource officer of Cruz’s suicide attempt and intent to buy a gun; the school indicated at the time it would do a “threat assessment.” The barrier to preventing this incident was the fact no central point of receiving and qualifying information existed, as so often is the case.

Let’s Recap What Can Be Done and What is Needed to Prevent an Active Violence Situation

All too often I am approached by organizations and communities who want a quick fix to the threat of violence and who do not understand that prevention is not and cannot be an inert process. For prevention to be successful, it will require a strong commitment by all those involved and those who seek to be protected from violence to create a safe environment around them, while assisting those in need and who are unable to cope. This is established by the adoption of programs that outline the policies/regulations and procedures to support violence prevention efforts, the establishment of observation awareness, trained aggression observers and aggression management teams, and education to the public, so the importance of these methods are accepted and practiced by everyone.

  1. Observations of Behavior
    • Predicative Behavioral
      • Training and Certification of “First Observers”
      • Intelligence Capabilities to Identify Unreported Activities
    • Public Reporting of Observations
      • Awareness in Preventing Violent Acts
  1. A Means to Collect Information
    • A Single Source to Collect Information
    • Trained Individuals to Qualify Information
    • Understanding of Regulations and Laws to Protect Privileged Information
  2. The Knowledge and Ability to Intercede Before Escalation to Violence
    • Trained Individuals Armed with the Knowledge to Correct the Path of the Aggressor Who is Unable to Cope
      • Certified Aggression Managers


October 26, 2018 Philadelphia Shooting

Here is excerpts from the timeline of events provided by CNN reporting:

9:49 a.m. ET: An anti-Jewish message is posted on a social media account for Robert Bowers, identified as the alleged gunman. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered,” he said. “Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

This person has entered the crisis stage and has fully committed to violent action before anyone consciously recognizes any aggression.

9:54 a.m. ET: 911 calls about an active shooter come into the Allegheny County Emergency Operations Center.

Only five minutes elapses from the time the aggressor announces “I am going in” to the time we have conscious knowledge of an attack is taking place. This leaves no time for intervention and has immediately turned this situation from a preventable to a critical responsive situation.

9:55 a.m. ET: Two police cars are dispatched, according to radio traffic posted by Broadcastify. They are told one caller reports 20 to 30 shots heard from the lobby. Numerous other officers say they are responding.

In one minute from the first report of a shooting, police are responding to an active shooter situation.

About four minutes later: An officer identifies himself by number and says he is on the perimeter. “We’re under fire. He’s got an automatic weapon and firing at us from the synagogue.”

Within five minutes of the first report of a shooting the first reported officer is on the scene.

Moments later: Another officer says one of her colleagues, who can be heard shouting, is shot in the hand. Another officer calls for a medic.

Just after 10 a.m. ET: An officer says, “Every unit in the city needs to get here now.” Dispatcher relays request to all available units.

Approximately 10:02 a.m. ET: Officers on scene request city and county SWAT teams.

About 10:11 a.m. ET: There is a discussion among officers about going into the synagogue. One says there has been no gunfire since officers initially arrived. “Once we have the resources here, we should consider (going in).”

10:19 a.m. ET: A worker at the emergency operations center said 911 calls indicated the shooter came into the lobby and began firing. People ran and were hiding in the building.

10:21 a.m. ET: Someone says an officer fired at the suspect during the initial gunfight and believes the gunman may have been hit.

10:25 a.m. ET: Officer says suspect is wearing green vest or green jacket with a weapon slung around his neck.

About 10:30 a.m. ET: Tactical teams enter the synagogue.

36 minutes has elapsed before tactical resources are able to gather and reportedly enter the building.

A few minutes later: There is talk about evacuating people and providing patrol officers at the front door to cover their exits.

An officer describes finding a spent magazine from a Kalashnikov rifle in the hallway.

10:33 a.m. ET: The suspect is described as a tall white male, short hair, light blue shirt and jeans. A few minutes later another officer adds that someone who had been hiding says the suspect is unshaven, is heavy set and has on a coat.

39 minutes has elapsed since the first knowledge of an active shooter before information regarding the shooter is shared.

10:36 a.m. ET: A tactical officer describes finding four bodies in the atrium. Another person is alive.

10:40 a.m. ET: Officers find four more bodies.

10:41 a.m. ET: One victim, who has a tourniquet, is brought out to a waiting armored vehicle called a BearCat.

10:43 a.m. ET: Tactical teams rescue two more people from the basement. Someone mentions there is still no contact with the suspect.

About 10:53 a.m. ET: Shots are heard on the radio. “Contact! Contact! Shots fired! Shots fired!” an officer shouts. An officer says there is a man barricaded on the third floor, firing at them. An officer is shot, according to radio traffic.

59 minutes has elapsed before an organized group of law enforcement officers is able to make contact with the attacker.

10:59 a.m. ET: Shots are fired.

11:03 a.m. ET: Police tell each other there are negotiations with the gunman. “He’s been given orders to crawl out. He’s not done so yet.” Police say he has an AR-15 and a handgun. They later find two more handguns, according to scanner traffic.

11:04 a.m. ET: Suspect puts his hands in view. A few minutes later, he gives police his name and age.

11:08 a.m. ET: Officer calls for radio silence because suspect is surrendering and crawling out of the room he was hiding in. Suspect is said to be injured. According to an officer on the radio, he tells police “All these Jews need to die.”

One Hour and Fourteen Minutes after the first recognition of an Active Shooter the suspect is brought into custody.

As you may see by the timeline reported, it was just minutes from the time of commitment by the aggressor to the first act of violence. It is not uncommon for the first act of violence to take place just seconds after the aggressor has committed to act.

Based on the raw information I have at my disposal today, I can only tell you that the aggressor has likely entered into what has been determined to be the seventh stage of aggression to violence. This means little to nothing to you, but what if I told you that there are nine stages of aggression in the path to violence? That information coupled with the knowledge that no more than five minutes elapsed from the time the aggressor announced “I am going in” to the first report of a shooting should indicate why early recognition of someone on the path to violence must be stopped in the very earliest stages of the aggression recognition scale.

As with any of these active violence situations, my heart and thoughts are with the victims and those close to them.

Bill Peeler is the President and CEO of Peeler Group International and the creator of the PAAD (Prevent, Alert, Avoid and Defend) Program.


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