By BJA NTTAC Communications
Earlier this year, representatives from a select group of law enforcement agencies from across the country convened in Tampa, FL, for Security Integration – Using our Collaborative Expertise to Prevent Violent Crime and Build Trust, a peer-to-peer learning opportunity co-sponsored by the Tampa Police Department, the Bureau of Justice Assistance, and the U.S. Secret Service. The meeting’s purpose was to provide practitioners with an opportunity to learn from one another regarding the responsible use of technology, deployment of field operations, and development of modern analytical methods to improve public safety.
Over the course of three days, presentations and discussions focused on interrupting retaliatory violence generated online and in social media environments; leveraging social media to effectively communicate with different audiences to build trust and reduce victimization; utilizing social media to proactively identify threats; and identifying public safety resources available to assist with planning and preparing for a large-scale event.
For years, law enforcement agencies have used social media as an investigative tool when conducting investigations. Using social media proactively rather than solely reactively is a newer approach which law enforcement agencies are quickly adopting. Several agencies shared case studies involving social media monitoring, highlighting its use as an effective tool to help determine a persons’ location, find context in live videos, and observe probation violations, among other uses. One participant discussed their agency’s success in preventing a homicide by identifying a threat that was posted on social media. Additional shared examples of social media monitoring included:
- monitoring gang caravans to mitigate violence by deploying resources to "keep the peace"
- monitoring gang members after an incident to potentially prevent retaliation
- monitoring live videos of protests to deploy resources as necessary
Another participating agency shared how they used social media to advertise a no-questions-asked gun drive, where they offered $50 gift cards for each gun that was turned in. 275 guns were collected during one of these drives held in October 2022. Promoting an event like this on social media is successful for the purpose of the drive, but also as a way of broadening an agencies’ following and reach on social media to an audience that otherwise may be disengaged from law enforcement-community events.
Real-time crime centers (RTCCs) are becoming increasingly prevalent, either within an individual law enforcement agency or as a collaborative entity serving several public safety agencies within a region. Several technology systems can be utilized in an RTCC, including cameras, social media, drones, and national crime tracking software platforms. During the meeting, several agencies shared their experiences setting up and operating their own RTCCs. Agencies discussed the following benefits to having an RTCC available:
- decreases in number of shootings in crime hotspots
- rapid information-sharing with other law enforcement agencies in the region
- collection of useful information from several sources to share with prosecutors
As with every technological development, there are challenges as well. Some barriers which agencies have experienced in using real-time crime center technology include obtaining buy-in from the community to use cameras; the cumbersome and time-intensive nature of social media searches; and the recurring costs for software which can search social media and gaming sites. Read how one agency received assistance to implement a real-time crime center in their jurisdiction.
Leadership from the National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC), a subdivision of the United States Secret Service (USSS), briefed attendees on key findings in their latest report, Mass Attacks in Public Spaces: 2016-2020, and discussed their approach to violence prevention. The NTAC was created in 2000 to prevent acts of targeted violence following the publication of a five-year research study on assassins, assassinations, and/or near-assassinations. This study showed that the USSS could not wait to act until a threat was made, but rather needed a more proactive, behavior-based approach.
Their model, behavioral threat assessment, is a proactive approach, not a criminal investigation. The importance of using the results from a behavioral threat assessment is the ability it gives law enforcement to intervene on a threat made before a person elevates their threat to an attack. The Mass Attacks in Public Spaces: 2016-2020 report, released on January 25, 2023, “demonstrates how mass attackers display a range of observable concerning behaviors as they escalate towards violence,” thus indicating that “targeted violence is preventable when communities are equipped with the right tools, training, and resources to intervene before violence occurs.”
Key findings in the Mass Attacks in Public Spaces: 2016-2020 report include:
- The type of site most impacted by mass attacks is businesses, such as restaurants, shopping malls, etc., followed by open spaces, such as festivals, concerts, etc.
- Timing is important.
- Some attackers committed their attacks during holidays such as Halloween or Valentine’s Day, or during court dates, board meetings, etc.
- Over 1/3 of attacks ended quickly (in under one minute).
- A smaller proportion of attacks lasted over an hour—those with multiple locations, police standoffs, etc.
- Almost 3/4 of mass attacks involved the use of firearms (126 of 173 attacks).
- There were fatalities in about 83% of cases involving firearms and fatalities in about 45% of incidents that did not involve a firearm.
- Many mass attackers plan or target specific individuals or sites.
- 1/3 of attacks involve a specific person whom the attacker is targeting.
- In about 50% of attacks, the perpetrator had no direct affiliation with the site but did choose the site to meet a particular goal held by the attacker.
- Most attackers are male.
- Most are lone actors.
- There is no age profile; however, the ages of mass attackers skew a bit towards the mid-30s.
- 22 attackers had recently experienced a job loss, with 3 of those attackers losing their jobs the same day they carried out their attack.
- 70% of attackers elicit concerns in others before carrying out their attack.
- More than 50% of attackers elicited concern among strangers.
- 2/3 of attackers makde threatening communications.
- Several announced that their attack was imminent.
If your criminal justice agency could benefit from training or technical assistance in the areas of modern analytical methods, utilizing social media monitoring, developing or implementing a real-time crime center, or other focus areas, request free assistance here.
Points of view or opinions on BJA NTTAC’s TTA blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice, BJA, or BJA NTTAC.