Preventing the Next School Shooting: Information-Sharing Could Play a Key Role

There is every reason to believe that keeping guns away from people who are violent and have anti-social tendencies will, at the very least, reduce the number of mass-shooting fatalities.  It can be logically concluded that steps like universal background checks would have the desired effect.  However much we would all be elated to find ways to reduce gun violence, this is not the only nor even a sufficient remedy to consider in striving to reduce mass attacks on schools, bars, parking lots, and other places where we gather.

The unfortunate reality today is that we invest in the development of processes and organizations that are most adept at constructing silos of information that are self-contained within their individual organizations. In the case of the Parkland shootings, we have observed that to be the case for the FBI, the Broward County Sherriff’s Department, the school system, child welfare services organizations, and even related family service agencies. Each organization has built its processes and systems around collecting information and then keeping it to themselves.

The idea that the collective wisdom of these disparate entities would be far greater than each of their own capabilities has not led to collaboration based on sharing what they know. Put more pointedly, if they securely shared information related to a potential threat, they would have a better basis for collaborating on an appropriate course of action before the shots ring out.

All of these entities have limits, of course, on what they can do individually to address behaviors deemed to be unacceptable. Police agencies cannot arrest anyone without probable cause to believe that person has been involved in a criminal act.  Social services agencies are hesitant to act unless there is clear and compelling evidence that someone will harm him/herself or others, a high standard for undertaking an intervention. And schools are usually not equipped or inclined to intercede in situations beyond their own environments.

That said, it seems clear that the outcome in Florida might have been different if all the information about the shooter had been combined far earlier to paint a total picture. If all the tips and calls and case information available had been assembled and studied, with a collaborative discussion among the concerned agencies about the potential danger he posed, some kind of preventive measures might have been pursued.

This is not necessarily about taking away his guns but, rather, about possibly providing help – counseling, therapy, whatever – that might have helped to move this young man in a less-violent direction. Or, in the extreme, the cumulative knowledge about him might have led to the conclusion that his behavior constituted a danger to those around him. Whatever the case, appropriate actions could have been taken, and maybe lives could have been saved.

In our society, we base the extent to which government can intervene on solid principles that protect privacy and civil liberties, and so we are constrained from some levels of information-sharing and collaboration. But for the safety of all Americans, it is essential that we understand and act on the need to securely exchange data and work together when the consequences are so serious. We have all seen the reports about Nikolas Cruz multiply to the point where, after the fact, we cannot help but wonder what the outcome might have been if all the puzzle pieces about him had indeed been put together and acted upon.

It is obviously not necessary to exchange all the data, all the time, for all the subjects of concern to all the disparate agencies that interact with people’s lives. But it’s critically important to create interoperability standards, processes, and systems that permit the sharing of relevant information in support of a considered measure of intervention when one is needed.

It is unacceptable for each separate entity to collect the data it wants or needs (or has access to) and then keep it so close that others cannot get a full picture with which to make informed decisions. Beyond just creating systems for secure information-sharing, a set of methods and processes should be developed so that the accumulated data can be evaluated, so they can lead to better actions and, hopefully, better outcomes.

[I serve on the Advisory Committee of the National Interoperability Collaborative, a new Community of Networks dedicated to improving interoperability and information-sharing across the multiple domains that impact health and well-being; learn more about NIC click here.]  

To further national security, we have created a coast-to-coast network of fusion centers that have as their purpose the generation of actionable intelligence about potential terrorist acts in order to prevent them; they do so by aggregating all the relevant information about a potential threat. It seems reasonable to assume that following this model, making interoperability a tool for information-sharing that fosters the kind of collaboration that would lead to carefully considered strategies for intervention in other realms, could sharply reduce the rate of violent extremist acts in our nation and keep our children safe.

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  • Paul Wormeli

    It seems to me that it is critically important to figure out how interoperability initiatives can help to solve this problem and where they fit in the development of policies and processes to overcome these gaps in our response.

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