« Continue Browsing

e-mail article Print     e-mail article E-mail

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Published August 15 2012

Mass shootings prompt changes for agencies, businesses

ATLANTA — Brent Doonan got a sick feeling when he heard a crazed gunman fancying himself as the Joker shot up a Colorado theater last month. It returned again last week when a white supremacist went on a killing spree in a Wisconsin temple.

“The first thought is always the same, you know what the victims are going through,” said Doonan, who was shot five times in 1999 when a smiling gunman named Mark Barton rampaged through two stock trading offices in Atlanta, killing nine people and wounding 13 more.

Doonan knew there would be calls for authorities to do something, anything, to curtail such madness — demands for gun control, for securing places where people congregate, for better mental health treatment.

He has thought about the Atlanta massacre a lot during the past 13 years and even wrote a book about it. But, when asked what can be done, he paused.

“I don’t know how you can prepare for anything like this,” he said. “We can’t become a society where you have to walk through a metal detector to visit a Wal-Mart.”

Still, the specter of mass murder has prompted businesses and law enforcement agencies to change how they approach certain situations, such as a potentially volatile employee being fired, and to alter their response procedures when a deadly crisis unfolds.

Response procedures can limit the damage, but not eliminate the risk.

“Mass murder is predictably unpredictable” and almost impossible to prevent, said James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University in Boston. “What’s not predictable is who will do it and where.” Fox studies such cases and has a database of virtually every U.S. homicide dating back to 1976. During that time, the incidence of mass murder (four or more people killed in an incident) have remained constant — about 20 cases a year.

Fox favors some gun restrictions and expanded mental health services. “These might be good ideas,” he said in an interview. “But they won’t prevent mass murders. If someone wants to kill lots and lots of people, they’ll find a way.”

The Atlanta area has seen its share of mass shootings or terrorist attacks in the past two decades. They have occurred in places as disparate as a shopping mall, a school, an Olympic park, in business offices and even in a courthouse. The protagonists were a mentally ill minister, a confused high schooler, a lone-wolf bomber, an angry day trader and a rampaging rape defendant.

Some cases have led to changes. Most have not.

In April 1990, James Calvin Brady, the former minister, bought a pistol shortly after being released from a mental hospital, walked into Perimeter Mall in the Dunwoody suburb of Atlanta and calmly strolled through the food court shooting people. He killed one man and wounded four others.

The incident, and dogged lobbying by the man’s widow, helped pass the Brady Bill in 1993 (named for Jim Brady, who was severely wounded in the 1981 attack on President Ronald Reagan). That legislation mandated background checks for those purchasing firearms.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors last week repeated its call “for reasonable changes in our gun laws and regulations that could help to prevent senseless tragedies.”

Retired Atlanta police detective Danny Agan, who had a part investigating 800 murders during 29 years on the force, isn’t so sure about gun control. “You can go into an elementary school with a machete and five gallons of gasoline,” he said

Agan was among the first on the scene during the Barton killings. Barton shot people in two offices across the street from each other, leading to a confused police reaction in which he escaped. He killed himself hours later when cornered in Cobb County, Ga.

“The Atlanta police response was not good enough, as it should have been,” said Agan. “There was no after-action report performed. We didn’t take the opportunity to reassess so we’d be prepared the next time.”

Six years later, in 2005, Brian Nichols, a prisoner on trial in Fulton County, Ga., court on a rape charge, overpowered and injured a deputy, took her gun, killed a judge, a court reporter and another deputy and then escaped.

In downtown Atlanta, he carjacked several vehicles and eventually escaped a frenzied and confused manhunt. That night, he killed a federal agent in the Buckhead neighborhood. He was caught the next day in Gwinnett County, Ga.

Would better planning after Barton have changed the Nichols situation? “It certainly wouldn’t have hurt,” Agan said.

After Nichols, the city and other governmental entities later spent money to create shared radio channels with other agencies, but chose not to move forward on other initiatives to improve communications.

In recent years, “the department has done an enormous amount of work to become better responsive to active shooter situations,” said Atlanta Police Department spokesman Carlos Campos.

He said the police increased its training on such situations, has adopted “Incident Command Systems,” (an emergency communications and management system used in critical incidents). “Most importantly,” he added, “there is a significantly higher level of involvement by commanders.”

Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vernon Keenan, a veteran lawman who has helped coordinate security for events ranging from the Olympics to a G-8 conference, said the Columbine school shootings in 1999 was a “watershed” in changing how agencies reacted to ongoing violent incidents. Before, he said, police SWAT teams would assemble at the site and wait until enough officers arrived for a massive show of force.

“But after that, you didn’t wait for the whole SWAT team to get there before acting,” Keenan said.

After the theater shooting last month, several cities and multiplexes had police posted nearby for a show of force.

Keenan said the visible police presences may not prevent such crimes, but they do put people’s minds at ease. Before the 9 /11 attacks, police kept the bomb squads and heavy weaponry out of sight during large events to avoid alarming people in the crowds, he said.

“Now they want the bomb squad visible to show we are aware,” he said. “Now the public isn’t alarmed; they are assured, although the deterrence level is unknown.”

It’s not just public places that can become dangerous. Workplace violence has become a focus for companies, their lawyers and human resource departments.

Charles Huddleston, an Atlanta employment lawyer, said companies have gotten more cognizant of how to deal with employees who might become violent. He said human resources departments are asked to watch for warning signs in employees, like problems in their personal lives or angry changes in attitudes on the job.

Huddleston pointed to one highly publicized incident that grabbed employers’ attention in January 2010. Three men were killed and two wounded when a disgruntled former employee named Jesse James Warren allegedly walked into a Penske truck rental business near Kennesaw and opened fire.

A lawsuit filed by a severely injured worker against the company says the employer had been warned several times that Warren, who had been fired, planned to attack people there. The suit alleges Warren received psychiatric treatment at the request of his employer and the firm hired security guards for a time. But it contends the company did not take reasonable steps to ensure the safety at the facility and determine if Warren’s threats were valid.

“As these incidents become more publicized, companies worry about their liability and protecting people,” said Huddleston, who’s not involved in the Penske case. “Most of my clients call me when they are getting ready to terminate someone. In every case I ask them, ‘Based on their personality or access to guns, do we have any concerns here?’ Often, there’s a pause and they’ll say, ‘I need to ask people some questions’” before they act.

Often a plainclothes officer is on the scene.

Businesses and other entities have hired security to monitor entrances and premises, and have made more areas off-limits to the public.

Robert Friedmann, a Georgia State University criminal justice professor, created an organization for American law enforcement officials to travel to Israel for training and for foreign officials to do the same here.

He said mass shooting incidents don’t carry the same psychological hangover as religious or political terrorism. “The fear factor (in terror attacks) is that it is not over. The worry is ‘What happens at the next corner, the next night?’’’

For incidents such as the recent shootings, Friedmann said it’s good news/bad news. “The bad news is you can’t hermetically seal a free society,” he said. “The good news is, statistically, the odds of being a victim are far less than other tragedies.”

Both Professor Fox and investigator Agan point at the media for incessant publicity. Fox said one TV reporter repeatedly pressed him to determine if the horror in Colorado was a record for the number of people shot. (There were 12 dead, 58 others wounded). It was a record, he conceded, for the number shot, though not for the number killed — and only a record for America.

“The headlines talked about a record set in the Colorado shooting,” Agan said, his voice rising. “Jeez, it’s like an Olympic medal or something.”