Katherine Schweit on how to end mass shootings
Former head of the FBI’s active shooter program Katherine Schweit shares an insider look at what we know about mass shooters
“The first person I would ask if I wanted to know how to stop the killing from mass shootings would be Katherine Schweit.” — Richard C. Hunt, MD, FACEP, Senior Medical Advisor U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and Former Director for Medical Preparedness Policy, National Security Council Staff
If you review the FBI report on active shooter incidents from 2000-2019, you will find that in 277 incidents, there were 2,430 casualties, including 1,546 wounded and 877 deaths. We have seen recent spikes in mass shootings in 2021 already. What is the answer? How can we limit or stop the increasing number of mass shooters?
In this episode of Policing Matters, host Jim Dudley speaks with attorney Katherine Schweit, who spent 20 years with the FBI as a Special Agent executive. After the Sandy Hook massacre, she was assigned to head the FBI’s active shooter program where she authored the FBI’s seminal research, A Study of 160 Active Shooter Incidents in the United States, 2000-2013. Through her extensive experience, Schweit has become an expert in active shooters, mass shootings, and security policies and procedures. She runs Schweit Consulting LLC, providing leadership counseling, security advice and safety training to hospitals, businesses, religious organizations, educators and government clients, and is the author of “Stop the Killing: How to End the Mass Shooting Crisis.” Click here to read an excerpt from the book and listen to her new podcast series, Stop the Killing.
- Using technology to mitigate mass violence: Before, during and after the call
- How smart buildings can assist public safety response
- LE takeaways from the largest database of life histories of U.S. mass shooters
- How law enforcement can prepare for mobile killers
- How Columbine gave rise to threat assessment teams
- What police can learn from school violence close calls
- The next generation of active shooter response
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POLICING MATTERS TRANSCRIPT
Jim Dudley (00:05): If you take a look at the FBI report on mass shootings from the years 2000 to 2018, you will find that in 277 incidents, there were 2,423 casualties, including 1,546 wounded and 877 deaths. We’ve seen spikes in mass shootings recently already in 2021. What’s the answer? How can we limit or stop the increasing number of mass shooters? Do we create more gun laws? Well, Illinois has strict gun laws and yet the number of homicide rates are among the highest every year, especially in the Chicago area. Do we limit access to the mentally ill? How do we define mental illness? What about those who have not been diagnosed? Well, Katherine Schweit is a lawyer and former FBI executive who currently teaches law classes at DePaul and Webster universities.
She spent 20 years with the FBI and prior to that post she was a prosecutor in Chicago. After the Sandy Hook massacre, she was assigned to the head of the FBI’s active shooter program, where she stayed for five years. She authored FBI seminal research, a study of 160 active shooter incidents in the United States from 2000 to 2013. And through her extensive experience, Katherine has become an expert in active shooters, mass shootings, and security policies and procedures. She currently owns Schweit Consulting, LLC, providing leadership, counseling, security advice, and safety training to hospitals, businesses, religious organizations, educators, and government clients. She is the author of the book, “Stop the Killing: How to End the Mass Shooting Crisis.” Well, that is a tall task and we can’t wait to hear what you’re going to say. Welcome to Policing Matters, Katherine Schweit.
Katherine Schweit (01:09): Thank you so much. It’s an honor to be here. I appreciate you taking the time to listen to my points of view and hopefully I can provide your listeners with a little bit of insight. I know you’ve got a really sophisticated group of listeners, so I’m excited about this.
Jim Dudley (02:28): Before we get started, can you give me and the audience an idea, get us on the same page if you will, with the definitions: active shooter versus mass shooter.
Katherine Schweit (02:40): Great question. Because that is the question right now and when it comes to research. An active shooter, as your audience likely may know, is defined by the federal government – DHS, FBI, all the three-letter groups – as an individual, actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area. So, you know, the essential elements to that are that it’s in a populated area, meaning potentially civilians could be injured who are unengaged and that it’s an attempted kill or killing. So it’s the threat itself. And so it’s different than a mass shooting. Mass shooting, first of all, has no federal definition. Mass killing does, under federal law, is three or more killed, but mass shooting has no definition. So researchers and actually a lot of us have been working with academics and practitioners to get an exact kind of definition for a mass shooting, that really will include things that are, as you know, domestic situations and gangs and other kinds of violence where it’s really just an individual discharging a firearm with premeditation to kill a number of people. And what that number is. We know it’s more than two, but we haven’t quite come up with that exact number. Although researchers generally use three or four to have a cutoff on when they’re doing the research.
Jim Dudley (04:06): So as an active FBI agent, what was your involvement in tracking the active shooters? I would venture to say that with a multitude of databases that track mass shootings, both government, non-governmental and for-profit, nonprofit, I like to use the FBI UCR database, but why do we have so many different numbers coming from all of these other places? Is there one reliable collection source?
Katherine Schweit (04:37): Well, actually that’s exactly the problem that we faced after the Sandy Hook massacre. I had been put in charge of and given a lot of tax dollars to find answers to that question. So of course I reached out to our people who keep the stats on uniform crimes in our criminal division. And we were looking for different ways to find that data within our own data. The Bureau is working on that. They’ve come up with new ways to track their data and put their data together so that it’s more incident-related, but they were really tracking data. Initially, for a long time, the FBI would track its data and say, if you had an incident that occurred at a bank, you’d have a bank robbery.
And that would be one tick mark in the uniform crime stats about bank robberies. But if there was a shooting at the bank robbery, someplace else there’d be another tick mark about a person killed, and it wouldn’t necessarily cross over. And then if there was a car crash and people were arrested and it was involved in drugs, then it’s all these tick marks and all these different databases, and none of them crossing over. After Sandy Hook, that’s exactly what we faced. No uniform system used by researchers, no uniform systems used by the government agencies. And I’ll just add on top of that, that we weren’t looking for all shootings and all killings and all deaths and all threats. We were looking for this weird vexing, subset of types of incidents that really were these public shootings. Think about Aurora and Columbine and Texas Towers, these very vexing, public shootings and saying who is doing this and why. And that’s really why we came up with such different numbers, such unique numbers. Now I think researchers are recognizing we really did get to that baseline data that researchers are using now. And they rely on it all the time.
Jim Dudley (06:45): So the data is more reliable now is as good as we can get.
Katherine Schweit (06:49): The information that the FBI used for their research was based on police reports and nobody else is able to pull police reports, but what we did, and what I said to my team is, look, if we can go out and ask our agents to go out personally to the officers and the departments that worked on these cases and get these kind of 10 or 12 data points, we don’t need their whole reports and all the details, but we need these data points on every single shooting. And we went out one by one on 250 or so. And then we brought that data back in and sat together. And we knew we had accurate data, not some supposition, cause some neighbors said, and we heard, and then also somebody gets shot at a scene and they die later. Those numbers count. So we wanted to get the most accurate information we could. So I think we’re pretty good. And I think the Bureau has stuck with that. And so now they have a good solid 20 years of data on activity.
Jim Dudley (07:52): Nice. Yeah, the data’s important, right? We’re going to do some epidemiology and go back to the root cause of the shooting, the motivation, the access to firearms and mental illness and all that other stuff. I want to ask you about your book. I’m going to wait until after the break, because right now, so far, the national debate seems to land on two central issues. One is gun laws and the other being the mentally ill, and there’s a dichotomy of two sets of people on opposite sides, on both sides, on both issues. And so we talk about people saying, “we want strict gun laws,” but we’ve seen them not be so efficient. And then we’ve seen people want to limit access to the mentally ill, but both NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the NRA are against creating a new list or a new category of people for fear they may not seek treatment because of such a list. So what have you seen in your background of the biology of mass shootings or active shooters? Are you seeing trends in mental illness or are you seeing firearms as being the issue?
Katherine Schweit (09:13): I mean, I love that you asked that question. Is it this or is it that? And of course, the answer is it’s all of those things, right? I mean, that’s the frightening part that we know. And the vaccine difficulty is that people really, we all innately want to kind of buttonhole and pick out one idea or one reason, so we can fix that reason. Right. That’s why we want one reason, but you raise what we know are some of the most preeminent concerns. You mentioned mental health and I can just address briefly some of the things that you spoke about. You’re spot on. So let me say this about mental health. After the FBI, after we did our research on the 160 active shooter incidents, we took those police records and we provided them. This was the intent in the FBI the whole time to do a two-part study.
So the first part was my study on a hundred active shooter incidents. The second part was a study that our behavioral experts did on 63 of those shooters because they were able to get enough information specifically about those particular shooters. And one of the things that they found is that every shooter and every killer involved had four to five, what they call stressors. Four or five things in their life that were stressing them out to the point that they – there’s kind of this concept of why did this person become a brittle individual and commit this heinous crime because they were under all these stressors, all these different things. And at the top of that list, mental health issues, not behavioral, you know, mental health where you’re worried that somebody is getting care for some highly critical situation, and the FBI found like 60% of those people had mental health as one of their stressors.
Those things very often were anxiety. They weren’t necessarily what you think of as a more severe diagnosed mental health challenge, which I tell you that because, you know, the National Council of Behavioral Health has said, “please don’t use this as a predictor.” Because the vast majority, the one half of the 1% of the 1000% – and so many people need to get mental health care for the most major and minor things. So using mental health as a predictor is bad if it makes people not get mental healthcare because they’re worried about getting their clearances for instance, and things like that. It’s that whole concept of we have to de-stigmatize getting good mental health care.
Plus, we also know that a lot of people who have had mental health concerns, they don’t get any mental health treatment. So they’re not identified as a person who’s had mental health treatment. So mental health is absolutely a factor, but not necessarily a good predictive factor. That’s kind of where I land on mental health. Guns, a whole different issue, right? I teach at DePaul University at the law school. I teach a class on the culture of the second amendment. So I have guns all over in my head about where we have it, why we have it and how people feel about it. And particularly for law enforcement. I answered the same question that probably a lot of people do when they say, we should just get rid of all the guns, which every one of us has heard a million times.
And as I said to somebody recently, I’m not against guns, I’m against killing. But that said, I think that we are in the process now of having to, as a country, come to grips with things, because we do have, 300, 400 million guns in the United States. Do we need to put into place some check systems? And there are slews of those on guns and different people support different ones, but red flag laws and trigger locks and more accountability for parents who let their kids get access to guns. I mean, most of the guns in these instances are legally purchased, legally owned.
Jim Dudley (13:58): Okay. So I want to get into some more measurements of active shooters. So oftentimes when we talk about the variables, the mental health or the condition of the shooter, or whether the guns were legal or illegal, or how many rounds, are we accurate in our measurements of active shooters? If the FBI defines a mass shooting as requiring three or more casualties, are we lumping them in with the domestic violence disputes or someone who carefully plans to rent suites on a high rise and start spraying an outdoor concert with thousands and thousands of rounds? I mean, aren’t we comparing apples to oranges sometimes?
Katherine Schweit (15:09): You know, that’s a great question. And I’m really glad you asked that because I think it depends on what question you’re trying to find an answer to, right? So if we’re looking for prevention methods and what are the prevention methods, for somebody who wants to go out in public and do these killings. When we were speaking amongst ourselves at the FBI, I actually was fortunate enough to bring in local law enforcement from Minneapolis and California, Texas. And they came in and worked on my team for nine months, a fantastic group of people. And so I really had that very great local perspective all the time who were questioning us. One of the things that we talked about was if you are trying to identify who is going to do this, why we’re going to, why this is going to happen?
What are we trying to, what are we trying to tell the public, how are we trying to help the public, or are we trying to help law enforcement? So we researched active shooter incidents because we wanted to be able to focus on prevention and help the law enforcement community, who is always the last line of defense, find answers. When people come to them and say, “this neighbor of mine is doing X. This one this person I work with is doing Y,” a better understanding. The behaviors of concern give us the prevention capabilities. Certainly somebody does something afterwards and a person shooting in a high rise is not the same as a person shooting in a house. But when you talk about predictors, we don’t necessarily need to research why a shoot goes bad in a drug house. We don’t need to research why that particular murder-suicide occurred with three or four children in the house, because it was a domestic situation that you look at those individual situations.
When we made the decision at the FBI to do this research, what we wanted to do was to exclude things that we already did a lot of research on, that the community, academia and law enforcement had done a lot of research on. We know a lot about gun deaths and gun violence in gangs. We know a lot about gun violence in drugs. We know about a lot of gun violence when it comes to domestic violence. And even to some extent, workplace violence. But what we found is that when we dissected and we pulled out just these particular incidents, we found some fence fascinating patterns. So for example, when you look at specific data and in our research, we found that probably 10% of the time when a shooter came into this kind of scene, an unarmed civilian disarmed the shooter. 10% of the time. We never would see that if we were pooling in the data with domestic violence and guns and gangs and drugs. We wouldn’t see that.
So that was part of the help, part of the great data research that comes out. When you look at the right numbers, we also found that half of the shootings occur in places in the workforce, that 25% of them occur in educational places, schools and stuff. We found amongst those two groups, when your shooter is shooting at a middle school or a high school, or your shooter is in a place of business that is closed to the public, like a shipping facility, a packing facility, a law office. When the shooter is from a closed place of business, that the public doesn’t transit, or a middle school, or a high school that shooters already inside shoots from there. So when you look at whether or not you should put up more security locks and alarms magnetometers, if your shooter’s already inside, they already have badge access, more concerned about prevention, less concerned about putting people in a workforce environment. That’s like a prison. And that’s where the numbers helped us to dissect and why we thought it was valuable to do that.
Jim Dudley (19:40): And that was certainly the case in Sandy Hook when it was the son of an employee, right. And the administrators, she wasn’t a teacher.
Katherine Schweit (19:49): She wasn’t working at that school. He had gone to that school at Sandy Hook through the school. At Sandy Hook, most people I think don’t recognize or don’t recall, but as horrific as that situation was, those kids, there were about 550 people in the school at the time, 82 people working there at the time. And those people had just had active shooter training just a few weeks before. So it wasn’t unknown. And that was back on December 14, 2012. And there, if you look at the people who survived that shooting, there is heroic story after heroic story, after heroic story of people who properly barricaded themselves, who did the hide part of run hide fight, did that lockdown. And then there were also children who survived because they ran out of the classroom. And that’s something that helped to validate our findings. It is important to teach, run, hide, fight, not because you want people to do everything and you want kindergarteners to go running out of a building, but we know that first graders ran out of a room and they’re alive today because of it.
Jim Dudley (20:59): Right. Survivability. So, okay. Your book is out and we want to know the answer. You, the book title is “How to End the Mass Shooting Crisis.” So, how do we stop mass shootings in America?
Katherine Schweit (21:18): I think we do more conversations about dispelling the myths, like the idea that these are all young kids in their parents’ basement playing video games. When in fact the data shows us that the bigger risk is between the ages of 30 and 40, the bigger risk is that kid’s dad upstairs in the living room, who’s frustrated at work. So first of all, we have to bust the myths. That’s really why I wrote the book. The first chapter is myth-busting basically. And then we have to be on the same page about definitions and the same page about numbers. I think I would say this to this audience, and maybe not to others, but I think we have to look realistically and individualistically in terms of states and local communities about what we can do in terms of kind of some potential regulations that might help in the gun world.
I’m not as much as I know about guns. And even though I teach a class in that I’m not advocating one way or another specifically, but I will say that I think we need to do, we’d done a decimation, I think of ATF. And when they’re doing firearm searches on paper, that’s absurd in this day and age, the fact that their data isn’t in a database. And the fact that the ATF can’t track, very easily, gun dealers because you can go from store to store to try to buy your guns. So there’re a lot of spots where I think if we tighten up, so the answer to your question, which I seemed like I was avoiding, but I’m really not.
The answer to your question is that this is a death by a thousand cuts. We’re only going to get rid of this. If we stopped saying when you and I speak and we’re having a beer, if I say, it’s all about mental health, and you say, no, it’s all about guns. And the next person says, it’s all about the ATF. And the next person says, it’s all about ghost guns. And the next person says, it’s all about suicide and domestic. My list of folders on my data for this subject area is probably 40 folders. And they’re all on different subjects because it is death by a thousand cuts. We’re only going to kill this trauma in the United States if we, if you think about what you can do, whether that’s training somebody, taking care of your employees. All these shootings occur in places of business close to the public.
We had a third of those shootings occur where the employee was fired that day or the day before. What is happening in the HR departments? So everybody’s got to figure out what they can do. And that’s really why I put the book together. It’s like, there’s a section on books. There’s a section on schools. There’s a section on churches. I am so passionate about this, that I wrote my entire training curriculum for run, hide, fight, and put it in the book. I’ll just give it away. I don’t care how to train for it. It’s there. Everybody has to be invested in it. And right now they’re just not.
Jim Dudley (24:43): Well, don’t give it all away right now. You want people to buy the book. So don’t spill all the beans. But what has been the feedback been like? Have you heard from DOJ or members of Congress saying, “Hey, help us implement these things.” Are you going to put the band back together? I volunteer.
Katherine Schweit (25:06): I like it. I think the response so far has been fantastic on the book. And I would say the nice part about that is it’s people still in the business, people who are working in consulting now, who I know I can be part of that band and make it happen. And you know, I think that there are a lot of people talking about the gun issue, and I think that clouds everything. So we’ll see. I mean, I think it clouds it only because we don’t talk about anything else.
Jim Dudley (25:38): Yeah. And I don’t know if we’re going to see immediate benefits. I mean, with the reform movement, people are getting out of jail quicker. The chronic recidivous are not staying in jail for long terms. As harsh as some of the 1994 crime laws were, now with the reform and COVID, we’re letting these mass numbers of people who probably should be in prison out. And it’s not unusual to see someone involved in a gun-related crime who’s out early from a gun-related crime.
Katherine Schweit (26:17): Yeah. I taught the Chicago police department as part of my work over at DePaul. And I completely agree with you about that. The gun issue is a bigger issue. I bleed for my law enforcement partners who are particularly my personal friends in Chicago who are dealing with what they struggle with every day. And I think this subset of what I was working on, I continue to work on is just that it is a subset of the gun issue. I say gun issue because that’s the way somebody else says it. And I don’t mean that what I mean is the violence issue. It’s a violence issue. And a lot of the other matters about, like you said, people getting out of jail and getting bonded out right away on things like that.
I get that I was a prosecutor in Chicago. So that’s a kind of a different issue, these shooters and these mass shooting situations. I think one of the things that makes it so challenging is these gentlemen -- primarily gentlemen, that’s the only dataset we really have a clear demographic on is that they’re primarily men, 98%, I think -- is that they don’t have bad criminal histories. They may have some criminal history, but they don’t have the kind of criminal history you think about that puts people in jail. You know, they have anger issues and court orders about domestic violence situations. They may have had brushes with the law, but we’re not gonna find our mass shooters necessarily by looking at gun violence. And I think that’s an important message. I never phrased it that way before, but see, you’re good at this. So you pulled that out of me.
Jim Dudley (28:06): Well, I can’t wait to read the book. How can our listeners find it?
Katherine Schweit (28:10): The easiest way is to pop onto my website, Katherineschweit.com. And on the buy the book link, there’s a link to every place where you can buy the book. Hint, if you sign up for my newsletter, you can get a substantial discount. I negotiated with the publisher. So sign up for the newsletter and you’ll see the discount code.
Jim Dudley (28:42): I’m doing it. Well, thank you so much for taking the time and talking about this really important issue and shedding light on research and data collection and listeners. We’re not going to talk about a novel and tell you who killed who at the end, so buy the book and see how you can lend a hand in stopping mass shootings in America.
Katherine Schweit (29:12): Thank you so much for the time. And thanks for sharing the message. It’s so important.
Jim Dudley (29:15): It is, and to our listeners. Thanks again for listening. I hope you found today’s show interesting. Let me know what you think. Are we on the right track to reduce mass shootings in America? Do you have an opinion? Do you have some ideas? Let us know. You can get in touch with me or someone from the Policing Matters team at email@example.com. Drop us a note, share your ideas, suggestions, or just say hello. Rate us on Apple Podcasts. Give us five stars if you like the show, it really helps us out. If you don’t like the show, don’t rate us. That’s my advice. Hey, thanks again for listening. Stay safe. Check back in soon. I’m Jim Dudley.
Policing Matters listener response
- I just skimmed the transcript of the recent Katherine Schweit podcast re. “mass shootings” and “active shooters.” It looks excellent, especially with Ms. Schweit discussing definitions. That’s one of the items so many speakers and writers have NOT agreed on. Without commonly agreed definitions, meaningful discussion and meaningful problem-solving are unlikely. That is indeed a huge part of the problem. Kudos to Ms. Schweit for mentioning this. As an early-retired professional LEO, I recall interviewing literally thousands of career criminals and career convicts (sometimes the same people) over the years. That’s enlightening. I am personally very weary of some people’s assumptions that firearms are almost never bought and sold other than through licensed dealers. Criminals I interviewed informed me (usually without all the specifics) of many street-corner and open-air de facto wholesale “gun markets” with no concern for serial numbers or records of any sales. These criminals just avoided giving details out of concern for being retaliated against. Keep up the good work and stay safe. — C.S. “Kess” Kessler, ALB, ACB