In Maryland, swift action by the police circumvented the intentions of a man planning an Active Shooter Incident (ASI). Neil Prescott, a subcontractor for the Pitney Bowes Corporation, was arrested without incident wearing a t-shirt which read, “Guns don’t kill people. I do.” Prescott, of Crofton, Maryland, who was fired from the Pitney Bowes mailroom, had made threatening phone calls to the business referring to himself as “the Joker.”
Media reports suggest that the incident in Maryland is a possible copycat incident of the Aurora tragedy which occurred just over one week ago. An educated look at available information suggests otherwise.
A copycat incident occurs when an individual replicates or implements the behavior or conduct of another. For the Prescott incident to truly be a copycat situation, it must be demonstrated that there was no intention of the potential shooter in Maryland to act out to kill people on his own until the Joker incident occurred in Aurora.
In Maryland, police learned of the potential shooters intentions before he initiated a plan. Police were given an opportunity to investigate and prevent an ASI incident. Their success was due to the receipt of reliable information identifying a potential Active Shooter. A brief review of both incidents suggests we have two different people with two dissimilar agendas. I don’t know if both shared the same goal. One chose to kill innocent people, the other threatened to do so.
Two things need to be realized. First, the Maryland incident was not a Joker-type situation. The Aurora shooter planned two emergencies. He rigged his apartment so that police would respond to a noise call and unwittingly detonate bombs inside. Meanwhile, he planned to be at the movie theater slaughtering innocents while police resources were diverted elsewhere.
Each emergency was designed to be separate from the other. If the plan succeeded, one emergency would precede the other. Police, fire, and EMS would be required at two different locations. This conduct is still under investigation.
In Maryland, if the potential shooter had been successful, the situation would be in the form of a more traditional, workplace ASI. In this Maryland situation, Neil Prescott felt victimized and justified in acting out against those who in his mind had wrongfully hurt him. Whether this victimization is actual or imagined is not the issue. The potential Active Shooter considers it real, and it is this perceived victimization, which fuels the incident.
These two approaches suggest the Maryland situation is not a copycat incident. Prescott was well on his way to completing his own ASI. Based on what law enforcement authorities found at the residence during their investigation, Prescott simply identified with the Joker achieving what he was planning in Maryland.
Neil Prescott suggested he should kill his former supervisor and office personnel of Pitney Bowes with his guns. The police overwhelmed him before one round was fired. Valid information from civilians established probable cause for the execution of a search warrant of his residence. The police believed he was a potential Active Shooter. A search of the residence led to the discovery of a stockpile of weapons.
I expect that the 20 or more guns and the large amount of rounds of ammunition confiscated in Maryland were purchased over time prior to the Aurora tragedy. This incident was inspired by difficulties the potential shooter perceived with management where he worked. Such a finding will establish this is not a copycat incident.
What have we learned over the last week? First, the Aurora PD, along with all the support agencies, executed a superb response to this tragedy. Taking control of the theatre and quickly apprehending the shooter, enabled the police to overcome a sophisticated explosive situation at his residence. Second, stopping an ASI before it begins is the greatest challenge before law enforcement. This can only be accomplished with public assistance.
In Maryland, the police had enough time on their side to obtain a search warrant. This is significant. The police established probable cause before the court for a search warrant based on citizen tips. Armed with a search warrant, the police initiated a search of the potential shooter’s residence with court approval.
The police cannot accomplish such tasks without the cooperation of the public at large. The best way to overcome an ASI is the same way the public can help prevent terrorism. If you see something; say something.
The United States will never again tolerate four planes being hijacked, civilians being murdered aboard a hijacked plane or on the ground. We will not stand by while two buildings collapse, murdering those trapped along with emergency services personnel. The Pentagon will not to be attacked again. The heroes aboard United Airlines Flight 93 sacrificed their lives to overcome terrorists when Flight 93 crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
An ASI does not fit the definition of terrorism, but an ASI is best overcome based on reliable information from citizens. Many terrorist-type actions have been prevented by members of the community providing viable information. It is time to do the same to overcome an ASI.
Lt. Dan Marcou has assisted law enforcement cope with an ASI by developing his theory of the Five Stages of the Active Shooter. They are as follows:
An ASI generally occurs within a school or work environment. In the mind of the potential Active Shooter, he is a victim. An Active Shooter acts out for real or imagined reasons. Harassment, hazing, and bullying are actions which bystanders and authorities must not tolerate. An Active Shooter tends to be a white male, quiet, reserved, and does not have a criminal background. He may be suffering from some form of mental illness as well.
Swift action by first responders may prevent further tragedy once the active shooting begins. However, we need to find inroads with the assistance of the community to defeat the active shooter before he begins. This can be successfully when intervention occurs in the early stages of the Active Shooter process.
Time is on the side of law enforcement if the Five Phases of the Active Shooter are understood by law enforcement, school systems, universities, employers, mental health care professionals, and the public. Successful action taken in Maryland was based on reliable, creditable information brought to police attention.
Authorities must intervene during the first three phases of the Active Shooter to overcome him before he begins. These three first phases are Fantasy, Planning, and Preparation. Once an Active Shooter reaches the fourth and fifth phases, he is ready and intervention is both difficult and dangerous. He first approaches as planned and then takes action.
If you see something; say something. With the coming of 9/11 as a nation we said, “no more.” We report suspicious incidents. It is time to do the same in defeating the Active Shooter in a school, the workplace, or the community at large.
Law enforcement needs to incorporate the Five Phases of the Active Shooter as a part of its training. School administrators, faculty, students, and mental health officials must learn how to intervene early in the process if they believe that an individual is a potential active shooter. Warning signs are visible if people are trained to detect them.
In the Aurora shooting, there was a distinct separation of the potential shooter from the person he once was and the person he became. The word potential should be kept in mind. Supervisors, school personnel, and even students will notice distinct behavioral changes when they interact with a potential active shooter. Going back to the Columbine shooting, some students were forewarned by the shooters not to go to school the next day. Information sharing is a necessity.
An ASI in the workplace may also be circumvented by alert co-workers or supervisors, as in the Maryland incident. Law enforcement was alerted in Maryland after Prescott made two threatening phone calls to the Pitney Bowes offices in southern Maryland. In addition to good police work, prevention of tragedy began with a concerned citizen notifying law enforcement authorities. In Maryland, this resulted in a prompt investigation, the execution of a search warrant, the seizure of a large cache of weapons, and the apprehension of an individual without incident.
The United States has a sad history of Active Shooter Incidents; the ASI as we know it today started with Columbine. It should be brought to an end with Aurora. Prevention of future terror incidents like 9/11 is a battle we fight as a nation. The same proactive stance is needed to overcome the Active Shooter.
Jim Gaffney, MPA is LET’s risk management /police administration contributor. He has served with a metro-New York police department for over 25 years in varying capacities including patrol officer, sergeant, lieutenant, and executive officer. He is an ILEETA and ICAP member. Jim mentors the next generation of LEO’s by teaching university-level criminal justice courses as an adjunct professor in the New York City area.
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