Why police must enlist citizens to help spot the warning signs of violence

Palm Springs Police Chief Bryan Reyes referred to the Palm Springs cop killer as a “ticking time bomb” whose Facebook posts all but foretold his intention to murder


During a memorial service for Jose Gilbert Vega and Lesley Zerebny — two California cops murdered by a subject at a domestic disturbance call earlier this month — Palm Springs Police Chief Bryan Reyes asked citizens to watch for and report to police the “red flags” that frequently foreshadow what he called “senseless acts of violence.”

“People need to start taking responsibility for their own households and stop ignoring the signs of escalating violent behavior,” Reyes said. “Start paying attention to the red flags that are evident in all tragic events. The Pulse Nightclub Tragedy in Florida. The terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California. The murder of our Palm Springs police officers and countless other tragedies. They all had red flags that could have been brought to the attention of local law enforcement before it escalated to these levels.”

Reyes referred to the Palm Springs cop killer as a “ticking time bomb” whose Facebook posts all but foretold his intention to murder police officers. “Quit ignoring the signs,” Reyes said. “Give a call to local law enforcement and give them the opportunity to address these subjects before it turns tragic. Keeping the community safe is a shared responsibility.”

Getting the public’s attention
Reyes is right, and we need more police leaders across the country to stand at the podium to encourage people to help police detect and deter acts of violent crime and terrorism. Whenever an incident occurs anywhere in the country, police leaders can speak to the public and the press about the need for the civilian population to provide police with actionable intelligence.

Even line-level officers have the ability to educate the public about their duty to watch for the warning signs that an individual is on the precipice of committing some heinous act of violence. For example, during calls for service officers can actively engage the family members of people at risk of violence — to establish trust and begin a dialog.

There are two lists which have been presented at various times over the years on Police1 that can be immensely helpful as you go about the business of talking to citizens in your jurisdiction. One was created by Police1 Columnist Dan Marcou, the other by yours truly. Here is a summary of each.

Five phases
First, let’s revisit Marcou’s five phases of the active shooter.

1. Fantasy phase: A subject may write, draw, and perhaps even post to social media about their desire to kill. Marcou wrote, “Too often, people dismiss these warning signs as ‘crazy talk’ and do not take action because they are afraid of being accused of overreacting. Inaction enables carnage, whereas taking proper action can prevent it.”

2. Planning phase: Whether or not a written manifesto is later found, it is during this period that the subject will document their murderous intention. “Finding the plan on a hard drive or in hard copy form before the event will almost certainly ensure the plan will never come to fruition,” Marcou wrote.

3. Preparation phase: During this time the would-be killer acquires their weapons of choice. “The preparation phase is an opportunity for a family member, citizen, school employee, businessman, or police officer to take notice of the suspicious nature of the accumulation of information and equipment,” Marcou said.

4. Approach phase: This is perhaps the most visible phase, when the person intent on wreaking havoc can be visibly seen in the possession of weapons as they move toward their intended target. “This phase affords an opportunity for an alert citizen or police officer to notice someone dressed for combat approaching a school, hospital, mall, theater, or church carrying a weapon, or weapons,” Marcou wrote.

5. Implementation phase: This is when the killing begins, and when the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. “What is needed is an immediate, effective, efficient act of courage. Seconds lost equal lives lost. An honorable gunfighter needs to intervene, take the shot and make that shot,” Marcou wrote.

Eight indicators
Next, let’s re-examine my list of the eight pre-attack indicators of a terrorist plot.

1. Financing activities: Any terrorist activity costs money. Watch out for evidence of secreted transactions involving large cash payments, deposits, or withdrawals.

2. Surveillance: Not just glassing a target with a pair of binoculars, a long camera lens, or a laser range finder, this can include timing the movement of vehicles and persons within an area, as well as simply transiting the area at various times of day and recording the activity levels at the target.

3. Active elicitation: A person calling a location with questions about security, numbers of employees, and other day-to-day information may really be someone looking to an attack.

4. Probing security: Examples of this tactic include phoning in false alarms to a location, abandoning suspicious packages in a target area, breaking and entering a target building, or simple trespass on the target’s property.

5. Acquiring supplies: In addition to the acquisition of conventional weapons like guns, ammunition, and knives, terrorist cells and individual lone wolves are still seeking to obtain explosives or precursor ingredients. Legally-obtainable but equally-hazardous materials include pool chemicals, fuel, and fertilizer.

6. Suspicious persons: Just as a lone adult at a child’s playground screams for attention, a flight school student who shows no interest in learning to land an airplane merits a closer examination by the staff.

7. Conducting dry runs: It’s well known that the 9/11 hijackers racked up frequent-flier miles as they conducted dry runs to count numbers of passengers and time out the best stage of the flight to mount their attack. Dry runs can also be as simple as mapping routes and timing the sequence of traffic lights.

8. Deploying assets: By the time the personnel and materiel are put into motion for a terrorist attack, stopping it becomes considerably more difficult. However, there are still viable opportunities to intervene during the final moments before a terrorist act occurs.

During his remarks this week, Chief Reyes said, “We need to work harder with our communities to identify potential threats, because if we do not, we will continue to see grieving families.”

Take Chief Reyes’ lead and take an opportunity sometime in coming days to address your community with this message. The more people who truly subscribe to the “see something, say something” mindset, the more lives can be saved from the threat of criminal or terrorist activities.

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