Shooting incident at Colorado “Batman” Movie Screening Highlights the Importance of Training in Visual Weapons Screening and Pattern Matching and Recognition for Schools

The deadly shooting at a screening for the movie “Batman” at the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, reminds us that a multiple victim shooting can occur in any setting where there are large numbers of people gathered.  The victim’s accounts indicate a terrible act of violence.  We have sadly seen too many of these situations in many countries with mass casualty shootings in the U.S., Canada, Vietnam, Israel, Germany, Russia, Finland, Scotland, the People’s Republic of China, Australia, Iraq, Afghanistan, France, and many other countries.

As we have seen with shootings and bombings in many settings, it is a sad fact of life that there are people who will carry out terrible acts of violence if they have the opportunity to do so and are not stopped by prevention measures.  Like every other mass casualty attack, this tragedy will offer lessons for campus officials.  There are commonalities between attacks in different settings and the foreseeability of attacks in the campus setting.  These types of incidents underscore the  need for more utilization of some proven concepts that have been around for decades and cost almost nothing to implent.  While these and other measures cannot offer complete reliability, they have been utilized to detect dangerous people before they were able to shoot victims in a number of instances.

Having been brought in seven times for active shooter situations at schools in the United States and Canada as well as having conducted forensic evaluations in court cases in the wake of school shootings, I have noted missed opportunities to spot the aggressor(s) in a number of these cases.  Each case is different and until investigations provide adequate information for any case, it is not realistic to make assumptions about the liklihood that any specific preventive measures would have made a difference or not.

Fortunately, there some strategies that have been used to successfully avert at least some planned multiple victim shootings.  These “near misses” rarely receive national let alone international press coverage. The tragedy of this is that people who are in a good position to apply these techniques to spot an aggressor before the gunfire erupts are often not even aware of the techniques.  Some of the best examples of this come from the K12 school setting.

From 1989 to 1999, the Bibb County Public School Police were able to directly avert six planned school shootings.  Three of these thwarted attempts were stopped using the simple yet powerful concepts of visual weapons screening.  These near misses typically involved gang members who had come to a school or a school event to shoot and kill victims.  Under a grant from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, officers in the department received training from Sergeant G.G. Neel of the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department Gun Squad.  This training involved what was then referred to as the characteristics of the gunman.  This training involves training officers to look for the unique specific physical behaviors that are often performed by people who are carrying a concealed weapon.    This information is also partially covered in a training video that is now in use by school and police officials in several dozen countries- Secrets of the Weapons Violator Exposed.

Officers in the department recovered seven handguns from violators on campus and on city streets adjacent to the district’s campuses in the next thirty days using the techniques they had learned.  Officers in the department began identifying other indicators that officers could look for. 

Meanwhile, around the world, medical professionals had begun working in an area now known as pattern matching and recognition.  Pattern matching and recognition has been used to help reduce mortality in cardiac care units by as much as 50%.  To oversimplify the concept, anyone who has extensive experience in a particular field or work setting, can learn to hone in on the patterns of human behavior that do not match those of most people under the same circumstances.  By then paying closer attention to the specific behaviors of the people who stand out in a crowd in this manner we can then more likely spot the real danger of a situation.

When these two areas of knowledge are combined, the chances are much higher that a dangerous person will be identified out of a crowd of many individuals.  This is because even though they  may try  to blend in and not draw attention to themselves, an aggressor will act differently than people who are not present to carry out an act of violence.  Though the behavioral changes of people may seem small, they can often be spotted quickly by trained and alert personnel. 

For example, in one case in Bibb County, Officer Kenneth Bronson noticed from a distance that a group of students were not boarding a school bus as they were supposed to.  He rode his police bicycle to the scene and asked the students why they were not boarding the bus.  Students told him that they were afraid that a group of gang members standing across the street might be there to shoot at rival gang members who were students riding the bus.  When officer Bronson approached the group of three young men he was able to spot the outline of a .25 caliber handgun in the front pocket of one of the subjects due to the training he received in visual weapons screening.  This led to an arrest and the prevention of what turned out to be a planned shooting involving a school bus. The officer paying attention to the actions of a group of students at a distance started what turned into a series of events which helped him identify a dangerous aggressor in time to take action to stop the attack.

These tragic incidents cannot always be prevented, but the techniques described above have been successfully applied to stop multiple planned shootings in the school setting.  Though it is tougher to spot an individual who is trying to conceal a rifle, carbine or a shotgun is relatively easy with proper training of staff.  If preliminary reports are correct, the attacker in this case was wearing body armor and was armed with a rifle.  This means he either concealed these items as he approached the scene on foot or in a vehicle or that he walked for at least some distance with the weapon and body armor in a manner that would have made it easy for a trained observer to spot even if there were many other people in the area.   Time will tell whether anyone was in a position to spot the aggressor before he was in proximity to his victims or not.

Pattern matching and recognition and visual weapons screening are two powerful and proven tools to prevent planned shooting incidents in any setting and are well suited for use in protecting our campuses.  While they should never be relied upon as our only strategy, they should be a part of every campus organization’s prevention strategy.  As with  many other preventive strategies, we will likely not learn if these techniques could have averted this tragedy for certain.  At the same time, it will be worth evaluating whether these approaches when combined with other preventive measures could have increased the chances that the alleged shooter 24-year-old James Holmes posed a threat before the shooting started or not.

Our prayers go out to the victims, their families and the community who  are trying to come to terms with this painful tragedy.

About Michael Dorn

Michael Dorn serves as the Executive Director of Safe Havens International, a non-profit school safety center. The author of 27 books on school safety, Michael’s campus safety work has taken him to 11 countries over the past 34 years.