Systemic failure is defined as a deeply fatal flaw in a social or mechanical system that ensures catastrophic collapse as a consistent outcome.
It was June of 2015. Dylann Roof had just killed nine people at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in South Carolina when I penned the article “America’s Unwanted Young Men“(1). In it, I made the following accusation that, sadly, holds true to this day.
“I mean when you think about it, whenever something goes wrong, we’ve argued ourselves to a frenzy blaming each other’s values, composure, backgrounds, upbringing, religion, race, whatever. None of that really matters. It’s just us making ourselves selfishly feel better. We’ve never actually been brave enough to put our narcissism aside and admit we have done a disservice to these young men. In the end, we like them being invisible, faceless and inhuman. It makes it easier to tighten the screws when one of them slips up and justify our march towards making all of America an open prison for those who inconvenience our utopian bubbles.
So let’s admit one thing. At this point in time, we don’t have any intention to do anything about making the life paths of America’s young men better. There’s nothing in the collective national consciousness I’m hearing that says this is even remotely important. It should be.”
This week I watch events unfold once again with all too predictable repetition. We’ve heard it all before. Nikolas Cruz was a deeply disturbed young man. He had a history of explosive anger and an interest in politically incorrect subjects. He was known to practice cruelty to animals, a classic sign of a future serial killer in the making. He was rejected by conventional society and welcomed by radicalizing influences. And they experience a catalyzing catastrophic trauma in the loss of his lifeline to ground in the loss of his mother to influenza in November 2017. You couldn’t create a better set of profiling templates saying this person needed to be taken in, evaluated and appropriately adjudicated in court to place him onto a less dangerous path. Everyone around him knew it. People attempted to inform authorities of it. And nothing happens to divert this young man from adding his name to America’s list of young men who failed the test of real manhood since Columbine.
See Something, Say Something, Means Nothing
What really stands out about this incident is that it was technically preventable and practically infeasible to act upon. Members of society in both “Internet America” and “Real America” did attempt to do all of the things we said we wanted to do to detect and intercept Nikolas Cruz on his way to being the next American mass murderer. The FBI was alerted … twice. Local law enforcement visited Cruz thirty-nine (39) times over a period of seven (7) years. The problem wasn’t a lack of case history; it’s that there was no clear course of action to do anything constructive with that case history. The time critical catalyst event of the mother’s death, significant as it is in the psychology of these cases, had no place to augment the system’s forty-one (41) entries in the NCIC other than as an anecdote in officialdom; and an imposition on ill prepared family members.
Really? WTF America? We’ve been watching this happen for how long now and we’re still handling cases like this with case management systems with holes like Swiss cheese? Who are we kidding here? Nobody wants this to happen. Something’s clearly broken and finger pointing with our emotional responses has clearly done nothing.
The First Step to Solutions is Perspective
Do you know what your personal chances are of falling victim to one of these mass shooting? You hear all sorts of statistics making it sound dire, as if you should fear even stepping out into the street. The noise has a predictable effect on the human fight or flight response. It will either make you want to disarm everyone on the planet or pack a piece of your own. Neither approach actually increases or decreases your chances of encountering a situation where you will have to fight or flee in real time.
Let’s break down the odds by removing some of the layers of statistical manipulation out there shall we? Let’s start with an oft quoted number. The National Safety Council says that “The lifetime risk of dying in a mass shooting is around 1 in 110,154 — about the same chance of dying from a dog attack or legal execution.” For argument sake, I’ll take that as an earnestly researched estimate. But what we all want really to know as we decide whether to stick a Glock into a holster and pack it around is what are the odds of getting into a mass shooting in the next 24 hours. So let’s say the average lifetime is 80 years and there are 365.25 days per year of a lifetime on planet earth, yes I am accounting for those leap years. That works out to a 1 in 3,218,699,880 chance you’re going to need to either shoot back or run away before the next sunrise. You’re 11 1/2 times more likely to win the PowerBall by buying one single number ticket on the same day.(3)
You can debate your fears all you want but the reality is that the fear is mostly in your head and solutions based on the fantasy of cleansing the planet of non-believers is equally in your head. Bear in mind that if the National Safety Council did its analysis properly, and I have no reason to think they didn’t try to, all the factors for exposure to dangerous situations, activation levels of high risk personalities, and efficacy of mitigation (or lack thereof) is technically embedded into their lifetime risk factor number. As for me, I don’t really feel an urge to hate everyone that disagrees with my politics nor plan on getting into a massacre scenario active shooter gunfight on any given day. On balance, I know it’s more important to do live my life in the everyday world focusing on run of the mill things. Judge tolerantly. Don’t hate. Don’t get sucked into other people’s irrational fears.
Acting on the Situational Risk
So where is the actual situational risk here? It’s in the risk posed by “activated individuals”; meaning, those persons for whom at risk character traits have come together with catalyst factors pushing them over the edge to commit mass murder. As stated earlier in the article, everyone from cop to shrink to neighbor to internet troll knows how to “see something”. People, as we’ve seen in this case, do “say something”. Enough of these episodes have transpired that we know the real factors that indicate when action is necessary.
The thing here is that we’ve also known what the solution to these situational risk scenarios has been for a long time. Back in the 1990’s when I was helping Los Angeles area law enforcement invent this concept called community policing, I ran into an early pilot programs at the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office (LASO) for a dual-agency P.C. 5150 response car containing both a Deputy Sergeant and a Department of Mental Health employee. 5150 is police code for a report of a mentally unstable individual. Police officers keep public order. They do not have authorization to commit someone to psychiatric evaluation. It takes a mental health professional to do that. Back in the 1990’s, there was one car on duty equipped with both sides of the coin to handle 400 square miles with millions of people. For all that we have learned about the situational risks we face, nationally, our case handing infrastructure remains woefully sparse. HIPPA constrains records comparisons with NCIC. Procedures to act, and more importantly, follow up to make sure that the most at risk persons are improving, are practically nonexistent. Forty-one contacts with law enforcement should have been more than enough to spring the system to help before 17 people had to die. It wasn’t. That is a fundamental systemic failure.
Overcoming Antiquated Flaws
I have no doubt that the Federal Bureau of Investigation feels awful that Nikolas Cruz slipped thought the crack on their watch. It should cause a period of deep introspection for the agency asking if anything they’ve done has even changed the lifetime risk rate to Americans one iota. I suspect the answer is presently an inconvenient truth. But it’s not a hopeless truth. There are ways to reach out before it’s too late. I’ve see this personally in other life and death situations.
In 2009, as a volunteer working with the Manhattan Beach Police Department, I spent long nights watching the beach. Departments along the coast had received a request from the L.A. County Lifeguards to please do something because they were finding too many dead bodies in the morning; people who had committed suicide because of the ruin ravaged by the 2008 financial crisis and sub-prime mortgage debacle. The job was a macabre lifesaving mission. I had the keys to the lifeguard headquarters tower and would bring the latest night vision gear, a spotting scope and a radio up to the platform and watch the beach; a 4×4 beach patrol truck was on call at the other end of the radio. I would watch looking for individuals walking down to the water late at night lingering. Most were just living life doing people things that, were it not for the mission, would make for funny stories similar to scientists watching penguins. But every once in awhile, you’d see the pattern of someone moving in a way in the greenish light of the imager that just told you they might be contemplating that maybe this would be their last sunrise. “2 Ocean 1 to 2 X-Ray 1, can you run out there and check the welfare?” Sometimes, that’s all it takes to save a life. Someone watching. Someone who cares.
In a world with machine learning, artificial intelligence, and big data mining, we now have tools that can leverage the finding that one person lingering on the edge out of millions of disparate data elements spread all over the internet. There are ways to integrate data from official sources and social media in both machine and natural language that can watch the beach as America surfs the web. These systems can be integrated into law enforcement and mental health systems to not only watch but incorporate algorithms that tolerantly analyze and caringly raise concerns to agencies to “check the welfare”. We can make bots that find the weak, save innocent lives, and prevent America’s unwanted young men from falling through the cracks.
I respectfully suggest that we should endeavor to do so.
(1) “America’s Unwanted Young Men”, Dennis Santiago, June 19, 2015, Huffington Post, (original) https://www.huffingtonpost.com/dennis-santiago/americas-unwanted-young-m_b_7623966.html, (reprint) http://www.pickingnits.com/2018/02/americas-unwanted-young-men.html
(2) “Deputies called to suspected shooter’s home 39 times over seven years”, Yaron Steinbuch, February 16, 2018, NYPost, https://nypost.com/2018/02/16/deputies-called-to-suspected-shooters-home-39-times-over-seven-years/
(3) The published odd of winning the Powerball lottery are 1 in 279 million.