FBI: Our interventions disrupt shootings

Attorney General Eric Holder listens to a speech after of his remarks during the Annual International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference, at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. AP photo

Attorney General Eric Holder listens to a speech after of his remarks during the Annual International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference, at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. AP photo

WASHINGTON — The FBI says it has helped to disrupt or prevent nearly 150 shootings and violent attacks this year, in part by steering potential gunmen toward mental health professionals. It’s an achievement that stands out during a year when President Barack Obama made curbing gun violence a priority, yet has had little success in getting new restrictions enacted.

There have been hundreds of these disruptions since 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder recently told an audience of police chiefs, touting the behind-the-scenes work of a small FBI unit based out of Quantico, Va.

Preventing mass shootings through threat assessments and treatment is an unusual tactic for an agency known for its crime fighting and not for interventions.

The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, for years, has been working with state and local authorities to profile potential offenders with the goal of preventing violent crimes like mass shootings. The “prevented” shootings and violent attacks from January through November of this year represent 148 cases that a division of that unit, the Behavioral Threat Assessment Center, has conferred on during 2013. And that number is up 33 percent from 2012, said Andre Simmons, unit chief of the center.

In the past year, this unit has received about three new cases a week referred by federal, state, local and campus law enforcement, schools, businesses and houses of worship, Simmons said. The Behavioral Threat Assessment Center gets involved when someone notifies law enforcement, for example, about some troubling behavior, and law enforcement reaches out to the center to help assess the situation.

“The people around that subject often become fearful that that outcome is catastrophic act of violence, such as an active shooting or some type of mass attack,” Simmons said.

The center is staffed by agents and analysts of the FBI, the U.S. Capitol Police, the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives and a psychiatrist. It helps the local officials assess the threat the person of concern poses. And then the center recommends how to proceed. Depending how far along the person is on the “pathway to violence,” Simmons said, the center makes recommendations based on the specific case. The recommendations could be arrest, if the person is involved in illegal activity, but most often, it’s getting that person access to mental health care, he said. Having a mental illness does not mean that a person is predisposed to violent behavior, Simmons said. So a person’s history and surroundings are an important part of assessing the threat.

“And we recognize that for many individuals, the coping strategies may be overwhelmed and they may lose the ability to see an alternative to violence,” he said.

The Behavioral Threat Assessment Center, launched in 2010, has not been promoted by the White House as one of its major efforts to reduce gun violence. Instead, it’s continued the behind-the-scenes work it’s been doing for the past three years. And referrals keep coming in.

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