Community forum: Trying to read shooter’s clues by Officer Christopher Mason

In October 2012 I was involved in an incident in Middlebury that led to the fatal shooting of a man by law enforcement officers. The man committed what has become known as “suicide by cop.” This involves provoking the police into a lethal response, either directly, as in the Middlebury case, by shooting at the responding officers, or indirectly by threatening or attacking the public. This phenomenon has become so prevalent that appropriate tactical responses are taught in the Vermont Police Academy.
Though it is regarded as a form of suicide, the risks to the public and law enforcement are extreme, and it is not uncommon for these incidents to result in the injury or death of responders. In the Middlebury case guns were discharged at several officers, and one sergeant came disturbingly close to being hit with a shotgun blast. The police made every effort to contain and isolate the individual, with the goal of de-escalating the situation without having to resort to violence. His actions, however, ultimately precluded a peaceful resolution. Through what he said and wrote, as well as what he did, it was absolutely clear, he intended to shoot and kill police officers. What is not so well known is that in one of the letters he left behind he wrote of accomplishing his own death through violence directed toward the public — and one of the venues he expressly considered was a school.
As the school resource officer in Middlebury I have participated in a number of training sessions addressing school shooting. Since the tragedy in Sandy Hook there has been a particular focus upon the issue, and I have received instruction in every conceivable aspect of it, from drafting school emergency plans, through tactical responses, to evidence collection and psychological recovery. Insight into all of these facets is crucial, but what strikes me as most fundamental is threat assessment — being able to recognize and gauge risks, so effective intervention can take place before the peril blossoms into violence.
Unfortunately there does not appear to be a consistent demographic profile or behavioral pattern for school mass shooters. Certainly some contextual factors are pertinent, such as a sense of persecution, a fascination with violence and weaponry, and, perhaps most obviously, talking favorably about killing people. These are very rarely impulsive acts, so there is almost always a process of conception, planning and preparation involved, often yielding clues. The real trick is in recognizing the significance of these clues.
One factor that is often brought up by professionals working in the field of threat assessment is mental health, and suicidal intent in particular. A great many school mass shootings end with suicide, or the violent intervention of police, which can be interpreted as a form of suicide. Certainly many of the perpetrators have had a history of suicidal tendencies, from ideation, through self-harm, to actual suicide attempts. What strikes me is that the act itself might constructively be thought of as an elaborately staged suicide — a view supported by the training I’ve received, as well as my experience with the gunman in Middlebury.
It is tempting to think of these events as murders, which, of course, they are. Murder, however, as typically conceived, involves a strong, targeted motive. Invariably we imagine an individual compelled by overwhelming hatred, or, at the very least, overwhelming greed. The impetus makes sense to us because there is a clear line of effect — somebody has wronged us and justice is sought. It is similarly straightforward to imagine a murder of passion, or a murder committed for personal gain, but mass school shootings do not generally conform to this model. On the surface they appear inexplicable. Why would Adam Lanza target children in Sandy Hook Elementary School? Why would Seung-Hui Cho kill college students at Virginia Tech? The answer may well be that the targets are really incidental to the purpose. The goal is not to kill people, but to die, and the killing is merely a means to that end.
This is not to suggest that the choice of victim is random, but that the decision may be based largely upon what will most effectively promote the ultimate purpose of self-destruction. Killing elementary school children may be attractive precisely because it is so appalling — an act so atrocious there is really no retreating from it. The murder is a means of propelling the perpetrator into a situation where suicide is the only viable option, effectively investing the process with an aura of inevitability.
Even in cases where there is a clear grievance, the response often seems bizarre. The objects of the grievance are frequently only loosely defined through ideology, and certainly the killing is spectacularly out of proportion to the perceived offense. In these cases the desire may be to render the act as significant as possible. On a very basic level, if the anticipated outcome is to die, why not eliminate the people you most despise on the way? The epic quality of the act may also provide broader meaning. The shooter in Middlebury wrote that he wanted to, “go out in a blaze of glory.” Again, we tend to think of ideology promoting violence, but in these instances it may be more profitable to think of the underlying suicidal inclination spawning an ideology to support it. Glory is re-conceived in a manner compatible with the desired outcome.
Another intriguing fact is that caregivers are often murdered as a prelude to mass shootings. This seems peculiar, unless you think of the caregiver as providing a thread to life — a thread it may be imperative to sever to permit the plunge into irrevocable destruction.
Of course, not all mass shooters are suicidal, especially among those deemed psychopathic. And even those that are suicidal occasionally don’t commit suicide despite going to such dramatic lengths to promote it. It is also important to keep in mind that it remains relatively rare for a suicidal individual to seek their own death through violence against others. A key component of threat assessment is recognizing when these tendencies may result in such violence, and that is a nuanced process — a process that should involve collaboration between law enforcement, mental health and social services.
As with almost all forms of crime, a strong community is our very best defense.
This conception may, however, provide a useful predictive model. At the very least, it’s a factor that should leap into prominence when encountered in conjunction with other warning signs. It‘s an observation that may also influence how we respond. Occasionally there are opportunities, before the police arrive, for people to interact with potential shooters prior to the onset of violence. It may be helpful as they frame what they say in those critical moments to keep in mind, the true goal may be suicide rather than murder. And, it is my hope, it might inform how we think of suicide in general, and the significance we accord it when allocating resources. It is not merely a tragic personal issue, but a threat that can devastate a community, and even a nation.

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