On circular reporting…

Just two observations about the recent shooting in Connecticut.  The first is kind of a policy thing and the second is how this event relates to intelligence analysis:

I honestly can’t figure out if people are honestly surprised and horrified by these events.  After all, it’s not like mass shootings are a rare occurrence in the U.S.  Consider the following:

  • We have absolutely NO way to track the vast majority of firearm ownership changes in this country.  We can figure out who purchased one from a dealer but at that point they enter a big black hole, never to be seen again.  And we’ve got a LOT of guns:

  • While the mentally ill aren’t that much more violent than the general public (does that make you feel better?) our mental health system and culture towards it is so atrocious that there are few opportunities to intervene in many instances.  Basically, we hope the worst of them will get strung out on illegal drugs and self-medicate themselves to death, allowing us to ignore the problem.

Now, in intelligence analysis threat is defined as the intersection of capability and intent (more from me about this here).  Yet again, however, we’re about to forget that equation. If you want to reduce the threat you either have to reduce the capabilities of those you’re worried about (and here we’re talking about their ability to access firearms, ammunition and/or their targets) or reduce their intent.

We don’t seem to be able to even talk about limiting gun ownership in any way (even requiring all owners have firearms training will be portrayed as a totalitarian blow against freedom) so, despite the post shooting gnashing of teeth from those on the left, I think that’s going to go precisely nowhere .

And let’s be honest, does anyone see increased funding for mental health happening?  The right will say it’s yet another example of creeping socialism and the left is going to stamp it’s feet about guns all day.

So, events like last Friday are tragic but they shouldn’t be shocking or tragic.  Someone once said that Americans get the government they deserve (or something like that).  Well, we also get the crime that we deserve.  If you want unlimited gun ownership and consider mental health an issue of ‘personal responsibility’ then you’re going to get events like this.  If you want, you can hire more cops, give them bigger guns and more power to peep into your lives but do you really want to live in an armed camp for the rest of your lives?


Ok, so onto implications for intelligence analysis.

Since our law enforcement/homeland security community is essentially a competitive beast, what you will see (or would see if you could peep behind the curtain) is a mass of products flooding the system about this event.  Almost all of them will be meaningless drivel.  Cut and paste summaries from open source news outlets with some boilerplate language lifted from DHS’s ‘How to respond to an active shooter’ booklet.  These products are going to ping around the system like pinballs, filling up inboxes and (for the most part) going unread.

Why will so many of these repetitive products be made?  Because every agency needs to appear to be doing something.  To paraphrase Sir Humphrey:

must be allowed to panic. They need activity. It is their substitute for achievement.

That way, when budget time rolls around they can proudly point to product X and say ‘We disseminated a product to all the schools within 4 hours of news of the shooting.’  What you won’t hear is anything concrete and measurable about the utility of said product.  That’s because usually there is very little.

Of additional concern is the use of resources in cases like this.  Does anyone think that North Carolina’s and South Carolina’s (purely a hypothetical example) take on this event will be (or should be) substantively different?  Rather than each devoting anlayst(s) to craft a product might it be worth while to produce one that applies to both.  Perhaps, in cases like this, even a national level product?

But that doesn’t happen.  So, beginning on Friday you had agencies all over the country and at all levels crafting products that were essentially the same thing.  Those were resources that could have been devoted elsewhere, perhaps to more credible, local purposes.  Given the sketchy details in the first few hours and the unremarkable aspects of this particular case a fairly generic piece that applies broadly would be fine here.

The other problem with all these reports is their impact on perception of a problem.  Even though these reports will all contain virtually the same information, the number number of these reports (I suspect) has some subconscious impact on perceptions of what threats are most likely and most dangerous.

For example, there have been a number of high profile mass shootings since the summer.  The open source media has reported on them quite heavily and the public safety community has an irritating trend of only following news items that appear on CNN or Fox.  So, in the wake of each shooting has been a flood of official products regurgitating the same information.

The problem is that few, if any, are looking at whether this is something substantially different, a spike in incidents that statistically happens occasionally or just the result of increased media reporting.  And since no one asks that question, people impose their own, evidence free, interpretations on these events.

And that, in turn, can lead us back down to focusing on things we shouldn’t.


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