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The “new normal” following the COVID-19 outbreak is still evolving. Although some people have welcomed the relief from many years of commuting and focused on personal growth and time with family, others have become disenfranchised, isolated, depressed, or lack purpose and empathy. As the United States reels from the recent high-profile active shooter incident in Uvalde, Texas, concern among Americans is growing.
COVID-19 has increased the risk of psychiatric disorders, chronic trauma, and stress, which eventually increase suicidality and suicidal behavior. In 2020, violent crime rose 5%, and homicide jumped almost 30%. In 2021, incidents of crime continued to grow. A return to normal is becoming increasingly deadly as incidents impact K-12 schools, subway trains, and city streets across the country. In addition, experts and researchers contend that COVID-19 has caused an increase in violence during the pandemic, which includes active shooter events and targeted violence events.
Simultaneous to this dangerous trend is a lack of awareness or response to glaring warning signs and statements of harm called leakage. Warning signs are often ignored or missed in the overload of social media interactions, not reported, or not adequately addressed by security or law enforcement. In addition, law enforcement is too often missing the mark in incident response, as demonstrated in Uvalde. As a result, violence is rising, and societal stakeholders are looking for answers.
A Statistically Significant Threat
Active shooter events have been increasing exponentially over the past two decades. While the most recent events drive media attention, it is crucial to understand how these events are evolving. The 2000-2013 FBI Active Shooter Report demonstrated an increase from 6.4 incidents per year in the first half of the study to 16.4 incidents per year in the second half of the study. The 2020 FBI Active Shooter Report indicates active shooter events have increased 100% from 2016 to 2020, totaling 40 active shooter events in 2020 and 61 incidents in 2021. This report does not include school shootings, but Education Week cited 10 active shooter incidents at K-12 schools alone.
COVID-19 contributed to increased rates of violence, which in turn increased impacts on critical infrastructure.
The disparity in what qualifies as an active shooter makes data-driven risk quantification challenging or impossible. Workplace violence is increasing, and both men and women are victimized on the job by bosses, coworkers, and abusive partners. Mass casualty incidents such as the Boston Bombing, Las Vegas shooting, and Pulse nightclub shooting demonstrate the widespread threat to society. However, the mainstream media drives news with buzz words like active shooter, active assailant, and mass shootings. At the same time, politicians promise that red flag laws and gun control will end the epidemic of violence.
Key Terms & Examples
It is essential to know the terms and definitions to understand and connect cascading impacts of social violence and critical infrastructure. However, the widespread use and misapplication of the term active shooter can lead to ambiguity and a lack of understanding of an active shooter event. A better understanding of these actions could lead to better pre-event discovery data points to stop violence before it happens. The following four terms are simplified (click the hyperlinks for more in-depth definitions and information):
Terrorism – violent criminal acts to further ideological motivations, including hate, politics, religion, or other factors;
Active shooter – firearms violence where the location is selected based on density, without a direct connection between the attacker and the victims;
Targeted violence – violence when the relationship between the attacker and victim is known or reasonably should have been known; and
Active assailant – an attacker using any weapon to cause property damage or bodily injury to one or more persons.
Following are some case studies where the above terms have sometimes been misapplied:
At a Buffalo, New York Supermarket in May 2022, an 18-year-old shot and killed 10 people in an active shooter incident. The gunman’s manifesto indicated clear warning signs, and the U.S. Department of Justice is prosecuting the incident “as a hate crime and an act of racially-motivated violent extremism.”
The May 2022 attack in Uvalde, Texas, was an active shooter event but was motivated by hate. The attacker threatened to “kidnap, rape, or kill,” and numerous warning signs were missed. The U.S. Secret Service has identified that attacks inspired by “misogynistic extremism” has grown since 2014.
A shooting in Houston, Texas, on March 16, 2022, was initially believed to be an active shooter when a suspect entered the building and murdered his boss. This incident is an example of a targeted violence incident.
The April 3, 2022 shooting in Sacramento, California, resulted when two rival gangs opened fire on each other with more than a hundred shots fired and multiple victims. This incident was a gang-related mass shooting but not an active shooter incident.
The 2015 San Bernardino shooter incident was perpetrated with firearms, and the attackers knew their victims. Some contend the Inland Regional Center of San Bernardino was likely not the intended target but may have been triggered by holiday decorations. The attack was undoubtedly an active shooter but also an act of terrorism and hate-motivated.
The Boston Bombing injured 264 people and was motivated by religious ideology and retaliation for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. This was a terrorist event.
The term societal violence encompasses the totality of violence facing communities anywhere and calls society to action. Although large-scale incidents capture national media attention, some people believe they are statistically not at risk personally. However, given the increase in violent crime over the past several years and the likelihood of crime continuing to rise post-COVID, the danger is real and should not be ignored. Three case studies highlight the threat to unsuspecting victims in incidents that garnered much less attention than Uvalde:
In April 2022, Jamari Cortez Bonaparte-Jackson was only 12 years old when he was shot and killed at Tanglewood Middle School, South Carolina. Authorities reported that he was shot at least once by another student, and the boys knew each other. However, the motive is unknown as the community questions why “Mari” was killed and how a 12-year-old possessed a firearm on a middle school campus.
In November 2021, retired Oakland, California Police Captain Ersie Joyner was not aware he was being targeted for an afternoon robbery in the moments before armed assailants accosted him. When the attackers said they would shoot him to take his vehicle, Joyner believed his life was in danger. He drew his weapon, killing one attacker and being wounded multiple times in the exchange of gunfire.
Kate Steinle was walking on Pier 14 in San Francisco with her father and a friend when Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate fired a pistol. The bullet hit a wall before striking Steinle and killing her. Garcia-Zarate was a convicted felon who was in the U.S. illegally. He said he was wandering around San Francisco after taking sleeping pills he had found in a dumpster, then found a pistol but had no recollection of firing the gun.
Societal violence is causing economic and psychological harm and taking lives at increasing rates. As societal violence rises, the emerging impacts on U.S. critical infrastructure are another growing challenge.
How Societal Violence Impacts Critical Infrastructure
Case studies and examples of violent crime demonstrate the impact on human life. The cascading effects of COVID-19 on increasing rates of violence cannot be understated. Societal violence directly impacts at least 6 of the 16 critical infrastructure sectors, with the potential to directly impact all of these sectors.
The Emergency Services Sector (ESS) is responsible for a wide range of prevention, response, and recovery operations. The ESS comprises five distinct disciplines: law enforcement, fire and rescue, emergency medical services, emergency management, and public works. These are the first responders to violent incidents, and the pandemic has particularly impacted this sector. Increases in violence and mass casualty incidents deplete already overwhelmed local resources. For example, San Bernardino paid $4 million to respond to the terrorist attack. The lack of funding and resources results in many police departments, including Austin, Texas, no longer responding to “non-life threatening” 911 calls.
The Healthcare and Public Health Sector primarily comprises privately owned and operated assets. This massive industry accounted for almost 20% of the U.S. gross domestic product in 2020, totaling approximately $4 trillion. This sector affects the other sectors of the economy, is responsible for the nation’s health, and is impacted in several distinct ways. Healthcare workers are subjected to violence at increasing rates. According to the FBI, there have been 28 active shooter events in or at health care facilities since 2019. Moreover, as violence and the impact of violence increases, this sector is responsible for continuing the immediate treatment and long-term care of victims of violent crimes.
The Financial Services Sector includes thousands of repository institutions, ranging from the world’s largest global companies to small community banks. In 2022, the economy has been slow to start, with a recession looming as workers are not returning to work, inflation is growing, and manufacturing is falling. Workplace violence is a significant contributor to workplace deaths and illnesses, with an estimated cost of occupational injuries and fatalities totaling between $250 and $330 billion per year. In addition to the potential direct impact of violence on or including repository institutions, the economy is declining, and costs related to violence are rising, constituting a significant risk to the Financial Services Sector.
The Commercial Facilities Sector comprises buildings and properties including retail, entertainment, outdoor events, convention centers, apartments, and more. Many people are at or traveling to commercial facilities when not at home for various reasons. These spaces tend to provide accessible opportunities for criminals because they are unsecured public areas. Commercial facilities are also where most people work with organizational conflict and workplace violence, which impact daily business safety, culture, and financial viability.
The Government Facilities Sector includes local, state, federal, and tribal facilities such as government buildings, courthouses, federal law enforcement, special-use military facilities, and facilities within the Education Facilities subsector. Government locations often feature robust security technology and personnel but are not immune to the direct or indirect impact. For example, in 2020, Portland, Oregon, was besieged by protestors who barricaded the courthouse and attempted to set it on fire with federal officers trapped inside. In addition, the Education Sector is directly and indirectly impacted by violence at increasing rates worsened by the pandemic.
The Transportation Systems Sector is critical to infrastructure by facilitating the movement of people and goods locally, nationally, and internationally. This sector includes more than 4 million miles of roadways, rail, postal and shipping, aviation, and mass transit systems. Impacts to the transportation sector range from the 9/11 hijacking attacks to protestors shutting down freeways. The New York transit system has long been regarded as one of the most dangerous in the nation. On April 12, 2022, a gunman opened fire on a Brooklyn subway during rush hour, shooting 10 people.
Where to Go From Here
The COVID-19 “new normal” is exacerbating societal violence. Two and a half years of illness and death, mandates, isolation, reduced social interaction, joblessness, business closures, economic impacts, and more are creating growing challenges to people and society. These factors have increased mental health concerns, depression, anxiety, suicidal behavior, and violence.
The cascading impacts of violence begin with the people directly affected by the incident, extending to critical infrastructure impacts and ultimately affecting the nation and the world. These critical infrastructure impacts have a direct effect on how society thrives. The media buzz and clickbait steer the narrative while businesses, corporations, schools, and local, state, and federal law enforcement work to mitigate the potential effects of violent incidents.
Many actions can reduce violence in society. For example, individuals can positively interact with people at school, work, and elsewhere. Positive interaction can build empathy and reduce the impacts and violence stemming from trauma, stress, and anger exacerbated by COVID-19. In the workplace, schools, and organizations, follow health and safety protocols to reduce hazards and learn how to take part in creating safer organizations. See something, say something is a nationwide effort to help people be alert and aware of warning signs. Any social media posts that include threats or speech that sounds like extremism, terrorism, targeting people or places, or an indication of violence, should be reported immediately.
Understanding what to do when exposed to a violent incident can make a difference. The Department of Homeland Security’s Run Hide Fight initiative can reduce the impact of an active shooter event and help keep people safe. The Stop the Bleed program is a nationwide initiative to help save lives. Lessons from the Boston Bombing and other incidents demonstrate that bystanders can act before professional help arrives. These types of skills can help in any situation where someone is injured.
Training for law enforcement, including incident response and decision making, will help increase the speed and effectiveness of the response. Case studies and investigations of incidents help shape training and policies to prevent the types of errors made in Uvalde. Federal and state efforts include federal law requiring “federally licensed firearms dealers (but not private sellers) to initiate a background check on the purchaser prior to sale of a firearm.” In addition, a June 2022 bipartisan effort to reduce gun violence includes a discussion of how to shape red flag laws to take action when violence is imminent.
There is no single answer or solution, but it is clear that society needs to prioritize health and safety as part of a holistic approach to reducing societal violence. Being societal stakeholders empowers everyone to create a culture of safety, build empathy, be aware, and report warning signs.