See something, say something, do nothing? There is a solution

See something, say something, do nothing? There is a solution
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Last week’s tragedy in Parkland, Florida, renewed the ongoing gun debate in the United States. Certainly, access to assault weapons presents a major problem, but substantive changes to gun laws are unlikely (although promisingly, several states are considering bills that would allow police to seize guns from potentially violent people). We should follow the Australian model and learn from their successes, but the gun lobby in our country remains too strong. The National Rifle Association contributed $21 million to President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump passes Pence a dangerous buck Overnight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Trump taps Pence to lead coronavirus response | Trump accuses Pelosi of trying to create panic | CDC confirms case of 'unknown' origin | Schumer wants .5 billion in emergency funds Trump nods at reputation as germaphobe during coronavirus briefing: 'I try to bail out as much as possible' after sneezes MORE’s 2016 campaign, and over $2 million to several U.S. senators, including Florida’s Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Energy: Critics pile on Trump plan to roll back major environmental law | Pick for Interior No. 2 official confirmed | JPMorgan Chase to stop loans for fossil fuel drilling in the Arctic MacGregor confirmed as Interior deputy chief GOP casts Sanders as 2020 boogeyman MORE. It is simply unrealistic to believe that this kind of money doesn’t buy influence. We can keep talking about it — with justifiable emotion — but if guns remain the focus, nothing will change.

Improved mental health services is only part of the answer. Most people suffering from mental illnesses do not commit these heinous crimes, and an argument can be made that mentally ill killers are no more prevalent than those who are judged to be mentally healthy.

Sufficient security at schools would present an unresolvable set of problems, including costs. Sean Hannity, and other pundits, propose universal airport-like school security systems. As a society, we begrudgingly go along with airport lines and an intrusive Transportation Security Administration. Do we really want to extend these measures to schools?


The solution is using what we know, based on evidence that points to following systemically the guidelines we have created for responding to tips about individuals, and all-encompassing early prevention. Parkland has changed the conversation; something different is going on. Movingly, students are speaking up and using social media. Other media have elevated the “something has to happen” story too. Significantly, the multiple signals and warnings to law enforcement must be examined.

First, there exist dozens of prior police reports concerning the Parkland shooter. He was in therapy but then dropped out. He was expelled from school for being a troublemaker, and his pattern of behavior suggests that he deserved closer scrutiny. There was a specific, credible report to the FBI identifying an individual with the same uniquely spelled name pronouncing online his aspiration to be a professional school shooter. The FBI investigated this report, but apparently only minimally.

On Feb. 16, we learned of a credible report to the local FBI office by someone close to the shooter this year warning that he possessed guns and was threatening to shoot up his former school. Furthermore, the shooter’s public social media profile was full of disturbing and threatening indications of his violent proclivities. Couldn’t these incidents have been easily crossed-checked if a central database existed along with adequate, well-funded oversight?

We propose the establishment of a national database of school security. The resulting agency, or sub-department, would be tasked with taking all necessary steps to provide for school safety and not be restricted to any specific approach. All the above-referenced issues should be considered and addressed. In other words, there may be specific steps involving school security measures and even the ability to plug certain gun law loopholes that exist on a state-by-state (or local) basis. But primarily, the agency’s mandate should be focused on reporting systems and full implementation of existing laws.

This suggestion does not amount to more than putting into effect the intended results of “see something, say something.” The sad fact is that if Parkland proves nothing else, it’s that plenty was seen, plenty was said, but nothing was done.

To understand what must be done, we need only look at where historic failures exist. We have been highly critical for some time of the failure of the federal government to establish a central reporting system for police use of deadly force. The same deficiency exists here. Why don’t we have a mandatory, centralized reporting system where each report is entered into a central database? A quick inquiry would identify circumstances warranting further investigation.

The next step is proper oversight. Proper staffing and significantly improved protocols are necessary. Of course, there must be close partnerships among law enforcement, as well as school and health care professionals. And any resistance that results from the turf battles that will continue to exist must be overcome by strong, mandated system-wide implementation and oversight.

Lastly, this agency must serve as a national clearinghouse not just for information compilation and flow, but also for statistical data to be analyzed and assets allocated. As new systems begin to function, violent and heartless criminals will come up with new approaches to commit violence that only a comprehensive central agency can adequately address. We must continue to build better mousetraps.

There will be those who object to a central agency with a strong mandate to pick up where “see something, say something” leaves off, on grounds of civil liberties violations. Although we have a Second Amendment, we also have a Fourth Amendment to prevent such intrusions on our individual rights and liberties. A new and expensive national system will gain the widespread popular support it will need only by offering up front to ensure a balancing of interests.

Our suggestion can benefit from the overreaching that occurred when the Patriot Act was implemented following 9/11. But the time is right, the holes in the law enforcement systems must be plugged, and thanks in large part to the students at Parkland, there is the emotional will to do something, not nothing.

We all accept there is no one solution to eradicate school violence. We can only implement what is practical and politically doable. Nonetheless, with the alternative being to do nothing, we must come up with a system that is feasible and provides a legitimate opportunity to prevent future events from occurring.

Geoffrey Alpert is a professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina. An expert on police use of force, he has been conducting research on high-risk police activities for more than 25 years.

Justin Nix is an assistant professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha. His research focuses on policing, procedural justice and use of force. Follow him on Twitter @jnixy.