UCLA shooting pushes panic button:
James Alan Fox 8:53 p.m. EST
June 2, 2015
Broad 'active shooter'
warnings fuel hysteria more than boost safety.
murder-suicide at UCLA, in which an esteemed professor was fatally shot
inside his office by a former student, was absolutely tragic. But
inaccurately calling it an active shooter situation only added to the panic
on campus and off.
The incident ended quickly, even before the
citywide alert. Yet the state of alarm lasted for hours in large part
because of the active shooter reference. Fear of this modern day boogeyman
dressed menacingly in black clothing and armed with an assault weapon is
well out of proportion with the risk, prompting many ill-conceived
The fear effect is certainly in play within the
Michigan Legislature after February's shooting spree by an Uber driver in
Kalamazoo. A bill to establish a statewide active shooter alert system
sailed through the House chamber last month by an overwhelming 106-2 vote.
Given the mood in the Michigan Senate and comments made by Gov. Rick Snyder,
the proposal should soon become law.
Patterned after the Amber Alert
system for rescuing kidnapped children, HB 5442 calls for the state police
to relay reports of an active shooter over the TV and radio emergency
broadcast system. Notifications would also be sent to mobile devices.
Although the proposals are well meaning, the potential for creating
panic is real. "I am concerned that the reporting systems can give a false
sense of security and have little meaningful impact to the public," said
Republican Rep. Martin Howrylak, one of the two who opposed the measure.
"There is also the possibility of unnecessarily creating public hysteria."
Active shooter events are quite different from approaching storms and
kidnappings, in which widely broadcast alerts can help save lives.
Unlike the unpredictable movements of a kidnapper, the vast majority of
active shooters operate in a small and well-defined area. According to an
FBI study, more than 80% of the active shooters remain in a single location.
Thus, nearly every Michigander receiving an alert would be safely out of
harm's way, although they could helplessly fear for the safety of a loved
one believed to be in the vicinity of the attack.
Also unlike a
kidnapping, most active shooter events are over quickly, either by the
gunman's suicide or by third-party intervention. According to FBI data, 40%
of active shooter events are resolved within two minutes, and nearly 60%
within five minutes. By the time the Michigan police receive a report of a
possible active shooter, determine it to meet established criteria and then
launch the alert, the danger would likely have passed. But not the anxiety
of residents until they receive an "all clear" signal.
fast-changing nature of these situations, the pressure to move quickly in
getting the word out can result in incomplete information or false alarms.
This has happened on many occasions with college campus notification
systems, which have been installed far and wide since the 2007 Virginia Tech
In September 2007, public safety officials at St. John's
University were prompt in texting students and staff about a man wearing a
Fred Flintstone mask and roaming around campus with a rifle. In the rush to
trigger the alert, they failed to indicate which campus was affected. The
incident occurred on the main campus in Queens, yet people at the satellite
campuses in Manhattan and Staten Island needlessly ran for cover.
March 2008, the University of Iowa community received a "Hawk Alert" by
email, phone calls and text messages about an active shooter event in Iowa
City, causing much concern and confusion. As it happened, the gunman was
miles away on the other side of town, not even close to endangering the
In August 2011, three teenagers called the Virginia Tech
police about a man carrying what appeared to be a gun covered by a cloth.
With memories of the horror of 2007 still fresh, the police were quick to
send out this alert: "Person with a gun reported near Dietrick. Stay inside.
Secure doors. Emergency personnel responding. Call 911 for help."
Fortunately, the witnesses were mistaken.
Of course, these mishaps
and miscues should not dissuade us from being vigilant. Without question, it
is critical that everyone within range of an active shooter be warned of the
threat. But for those caught in such dire situations, the very best alert
system is not some late arriving text message but the immediate sound of
gunfire.James Alan Fox is the Lipman
Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University
and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. He is co-author of
Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder.