Editor’s Note: This is the second of two stories about dealing with potentially dangerous situations involving persons suffering from mental illness.
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
Many times, tense verbal confrontations can be mitigated with calm and conversation, but the church shooting in Sutherland Springs last November, and the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, two weeks ago serve as grim reminders that violence can’t always be avoided.
The Liberty Hill Community Critical Incident Task Force met Feb. 15 to learn more about protecting the community from a similar tragedy, focusing much of its time on de-escalation and intervention, but also talking about seeing the signs and being prepared for the worst. It all comes down to prevention and preparation.
The primary obstacle to dealign with these dangerous circumstances is being able to predict them.
“What does the FBI know about active shooters and predicting their behavior?” asked Annie Burwell with the Williamson County Mobile Outreach Team (MOT). “What the FBI tells us when they try to predict someone will commit an act of mass murder is that they don’t really know. There’s no consistent way yet that we’re assessing for violence that will say.”
The plan on how to manage the people in the building – be it a school, church, business or other public place – is what it comes down to and everyone should know their responsibility in that plan.
One of the first questions asked is whether having someone armed on the premises is the best option.
“Arming your church or facility is a whole other decision tree,” Burwell said. “There’s a lot of good reading material about whether you should do that or not. Or should you hire an off-duty officer to be at your church?”
Whether someone on the premises is armed or not, after calling 911, the options are run, hide or fight.
“That’s a personal decision, but that’s the reality that sort of gets into that struggle about what your role is,” Burwell said. “You really need to think about because what we know about most of these shootings is they take seconds. This isn’t like a 20-minute western movie scene.”
Questions like whether to run or not, and if so, where, need to be answered ahead of time. Is there a meeting point outside? Is the plan to hide, close doors, black things out?
“In some buildings (those options are) going to be a great option,” Burwell said. “In some buildings it makes you a sitting target. You have to look at your building and then you have to educate your people on what to do.”
Burwell used the efforts of fire services over the last half century to prevent fires as an example of how much more can be done with the right emphasis.
“The fire service is light years ahead of law enforcement-related safety issues,” she said regarding being prepared for threat. “How many school deaths due to fire have we had in the last 50 to 60 years? Zero. Fifty to sixty years ago, the fire service did a great job around the country of saying, ‘I know this is going to cost a lot, but this is going to save lives.’”
Schools and public buildings are now equipped with flame retardant materials, sprinklers, alarms, and they conduct regular drills. Safety in relation to armed assaults is only just beginning to catch up.
“This is not new, this has been going on for a while, so we have some catching up to do and come together as a community and see what we can do to help each other,” said Liberty Hill Police Officer William Potter.
Communication is key
Higher level response planning falls on the shoulders of first responders.
“We’re always staying one step ahead and thinking in regard to safety in this community,” said Liberty Hill Police Chief Maverick Campbell. “Even though there are no threats here and none of that has happened here, we are always going to be prepared for that. That involves planning, that involves disaster response and critical incident response plans, both at the law enforcement and school level, as well as for businesses and residential areas.”
He added that coordination between entities such as school districts or churches and first responders is always ongoing.
“We should always be communicating,” he said. “We’re not going to share plans with the public, but our department and the school have to be on the same page, so we know the layouts and what their procedures are. At the same time, when we arrive on the scene, the best thing they can do is just listen to the first responders and the officers.”
The balance comes in not living in fear or paranoia, but also being aware of potential threats.
“There’s a difference between being cognizant of your surroundings, which I call situational awareness, and full blown paranoia,” Campbell said. “We don’t want people to be paranoid or scared that something like this is going to happen. We want people to understand that this is unfortunately the world we live in right now and that we have to be one step ahead of that.”
The repeated mantra today is to watch and report things.
“If you see something or you hear something, you better tell somebody,” Burwell said. “You need to take those statements and actions really seriously.”
While predicting attacks is very difficult, there are warnings signs people should always be aware of.
People with a personal grievance, a history of violence including domestic abuse, any sort of stockpiling of things, killing of animals, starting fires, or someone who is just cruel to other people or initiating fights can all be signs of trouble. Often these things are magnified by a loss of some sort when an attack takes place.
“You throw these factors together, then something happens related to a loss,” Burwell said. “Maybe you have some of these factors and maybe they lose their job, or then their spouse dies. We throw some drugs or alcohol on that kind of stuff then we’re really getting into trouble.”
An ounce of prevention
The violent acts are difficult to prepare for, and more so to predict, but Burwell said often the answer can be found in how the threat is avoided or diffused long before an attack.
Offering help, showing kindness and not stigmatizing those who struggle with mental health issues can go a long way.
“Their church community is one of the first groups they are going to reach out to, but what you find with people with serious mental illness is that is the first group they ask for help with, but often the group that stigmatizes them the most,” she said. “People start to feel where once they had a church community they suddenly feel super isolated. When people come to you with issues or symptoms like that, offer to help them find help, but also, encourage them to keep coming back, because that family needs so much support.”
Whether someone has not received the right medications or is just not taking them, it is important to remember that mental illness is an illness, just like any other.
“We don’t tell people with cancer or diabetes that they’re crazy,” Burwell said. “But 50 percent of Americans don’t take their medications for anything. When someone drops dead of a heart attack, we don’t usually say, ‘I bet he didn’t take his meds this morning?’ But we do that with mental health medications.”
Burwell said classes like mental health first aid, psychological first aid, and training for helping people who are suicidal are available for groups.
“There’s lots of good training, so if you can really pay attention to the stigma part, and keep the safe people welcome in your community then get some training about the more serious issues, you’re off to a great start,” she said. “If you throw a plan on top of that and you’re in really good shape.”