Although officers on the scene stopped the shooter’s short-lived rampage, someone suitably armed who is highly motivated can get into almost any facility to potentially commit mass murder, security experts say.
(TNS) — It’s a fear that’s crept into everyone’s mind. You’re walking down a street on an ordinary day, turn a corner, and hear a barrage of gunfire from an assault rifle. The shooter has multiple clips of ammo and no fear of death.
That was reality on Monday for Don Miles, who was walking to the Commerce Street entrance of the Earle Cabell Federal Building when Dallas’ latest lone wolf assault happened. He ran across the street, into traffic, to get away.
“I really didn’t know exactly where the bullets were coming from. The shots were just ringing out. People were running out the door. I didn’t know if he was inside or where he was,” Miles said during an interview Friday.
Our security is better. Our response is faster.
And yet potential targets remain everywhere. When Brian Clyde attacked the federal courthouse before he was killed by officers in a gun battle, it was at least the third time since 2015 that an aggrieved, heavily armed gunman opened fire on police in and around downtown Dallas.
Although officers on the scene stopped Clyde’s short-lived rampage, someone suitably armed who is highly motivated can get into almost any facility to potentially commit mass murder, security experts say. There is also the risk that creating fortresslike defenses in major cities will encourage terrorists and other bad actors to seek out so-called “soft targets” like movie theaters and restaurants, or target small towns or suburbs where security is light or nonexistent.
Despite advances in high-tech security measures, from place to place and event to event, the level of security can be vastly different. It’s been a reality for a long time now, since 9/11 or even the Oklahoma City bombing of the ’90s, that we are always in danger. Experts say the best thing you can do to stay safe is to remain alert and report suspicious activity,
“There is no silver bullet to any of this stuff,” said Nadav Morag, an associate professor at Sam Houston State University and chairman of its security studies department.
Even after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, Americans were willing to tolerate only so much infringement of their freedoms to increase security, Morag said. Metal detectors are one thing. But U.S. national security agencies cannot, for example, monitor our social media, internet or phone activity and interactions without the reasonable suspicion that requires a warrant.
Even if a family member reports an unstable relative, authorities are limited in what they can do — unless the person has committed a crime or is an immediate threat to themselves or others.
“We have to accept that this is a reality,” Morag said. “It’s a trade-off.”
If we as a society want to have unfettered access to guns, “we have to live with the repercussions,” said Morag, who served as senior director of the Israeli National Security Council.
In some big cities like New York, concrete barriers and other obstacles are showing up in public spaces to try to prevent terrorists from using vehicles to mow down pedestrians. Surveillance cameras are everywhere, and facial recognition software is beginning to be used at large sporting venues, a situation eerily reminiscent of North Korea or a George Orwell novel. It’s also not unusual to see heavily-armed police milling about during large events.
While prevention remains a tricky subject, response efforts have improved greatly.
Kevin Oden, Dallas’ assistant emergency management coordinator, said Dallas is as prepared and equipped for active shooter events as any other city in the nation. Last year was the Office of Emergency Management’s most ambitious, having pulled off the city’s largest full-scale mass casualty incident exercise at the Majestic Theatre.
Police officers are equipped with techniques and firepower that were once the sole purview of SWAT. And Dallas medics with ballistic gear can now enter disaster and mass-casualty scenes to rescue and treat victims without waiting hours for the threat to subside, Oden said. “That’s where we have to be,” he said.
Monday’s attack on the courthouse was the perfect example of the most difficult threat to detect: the self-radicalized lone wolf.
Confidential informants and other intelligence efforts that traditionally have worked against terrorist organizations are useless against this person, whose methods and motivations are typically known only to himself. There is no one harder to stop than the person who doesn’t care what happens to himself, said Kyle Olson, a Virginia-based security consultant.
“If you are willing to die for your cause, you are a very, very potent weapon,” he said. “It’s a big challenge.”
OUT OF PROPORTION
Still, experts point out that Monday’s attack was a relatively rare event.
Government statistics reveal a total of 160 active shooter events in America from 2000 to 2013. The FBI defines active shooters as those “actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in populated areas,” not including incidents tied to gang or drug violence. The median number of deaths was two.
And just 1% of murder victims were killed during such incidents, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
“We give them more credit than they deserve,” Morag says, because the threat is often not proportional to the response. The shooters are trying to create a big impact, he said.
In Dallas, few have forgotten the downtown sniper who in 2016 killed five officers in an ambush following a protest march. A police robot killed him hours later. And many remember the 2015 attack on the police headquarters building in which the shooter was killed before he could harm anyone.
Miles, 66, a Dallas charter school building director, said he is still shaken by Monday’s attack.
“It scared me to death,” he said. “I’m looking to the left and right all the time. It makes you paranoid because you don’t know what might happen any day.”
Morag said people are more likely to die in vehicle accidents than in a mass shooting or bombing. But people don’t drive less because of it, he said.
Israelis are willing to tolerate considerably more intrusion into their lives for security, such as checkpoints, given the threat level in that country, Morag said. How much Americans will tolerate is a “function of how threatened we feel,” he said. He called it a “psychological function.”
Immediately following the September 2001 attacks, lawmakers passed the Patriot Act that added a number of restrictive security measures. But as the threat recedes, the public is less likely to agree to laws and policies that limit freedoms, Morag said. Americans don’t seem receptive, for example, to the idea of metal detectors at entrances to shopping malls and movie theaters, he said.
Americans, he said, do not want to become like China, which is investing heavily in technology such as artificial intelligence, facial recognition and the monitoring of social media — and not all in the name of security.
Olson, the security consultant, said absolute security is unattainable. By definition, we live in an open society, he said. Commerce and schooling “demand that people be able to come and go.”
WHAT TO DO
Whether it’s a business, a school or a courthouse, people will walk through the front door who you don’t know, Olson said.
Danny Defenbaugh, a longtime FBI supervisor in Dallas who now runs a security and investigative firm, said the one person who’s most important for security is the receptionist, who will be the first to come into contact with a potential threat.
“You find that they don’t have any training,” he said.
Companies and governments are investing more in surveillance systems like video cameras, but Olson said their use is limited. “My problem with that is, it’s good at telling you what happened after the fact,” Olson said.
Some cities like London are using cameras proactively, he said. They have people who monitor live feeds to look for certain behavior, he said. In Sydney, Australia, security workers will follow people on CCTV over multi-block area if they view something suspicious, he said.
But that, Olson added, has “a certain Big Brother quality to it.”
“In the abstract, I don’t like the idea of Big Brother watching me all the time,” he said.
But should something bad happen, Olson said, people will immediately ask: Why weren’t you watching this person?
Oden, the city’s emergency management official, said his department is gearing up for a regional full-scale exercise called the Complex Coordinated Terrorist Attack.
The event, paid for by a grant, will help North Texas prepare for an attack on par with the deadly Easter bombings in Sri Lanka earlier this year. On that day, three churches and three hotels were targeted in coordinated suicide bombings. The terrorist attacks killed 258 people, and wounded at least 500 others. Oden said the exercise will be held as soon as March 2020.
Another tool Dallas police have is called a “fusion center,” where criminal intelligence data is collected and shared among federal, state and local police looking for threat indicators. The city’s fusion center provides “real time tactical intelligence to officers in the field responding to emergency calls,” according to the Dallas police website.
Matthew J. DeSarno, the new special agent in charge of the FBI’s Dallas field office, has worked in counterterrorism during his career in big cities such as Chicago and Washington, D.C. He said cooperation and information sharing between law enforcement in North Texas is the best he’s ever seen.
“That’s critical to protecting cities because the first responders will be local police departments,” he said.
Oden said Dallas police do a great job developing relationships with private security and having plenty of officers in the downtown area that’s home to prime targets for terrorists like City Hall. But that can do only so much.
“There will never be enough cops, enough security,” Oden said.
THE NEW THREAT
Clyde, the 22-year-old courthouse shooter, was considered a lone wolf or, as the FBI calls them, “homegrown violent extremists.”
Defenbaugh says they are usually young men who are “determined to make a name for themselves.”
DeSarno called it a challenging problem because you have “mental health issues combined with some multiple grievances.”
“We are taking steps to be more effective against that threat,” he said.
DeSarno, Oden and other security experts say it is up to the public to act as a first line of defense and report any suspicious activity. That includes warning signs on social media, Oden said, such as a fascination with guns and violence.
It creates a challenge for loved ones who are around a potentially violent person, DeSarno said. In many cases, people are close enough to see some warning signs. DeSarno said they should not be fearful of embarrassment if they are wrong. They should dial 911, he said.
That actually happened in Clyde’s case. A relative warned the FBI in 2016 that he shouldn’t be allowed to buy a gun because he was depressed and suicidal. But because there was no specific threat, the FBI said it had no legal reason to pursue an investigation.
DeSarno said he doesn’t want citizens to be paranoid and fearful. But they should raise their level of “situational awareness,” rather than walking around with “earbuds on and your face in your phone.” Know where building exits are, for example. If you had to evacuate a building, where would you go?
“For the average person day to day, just live your life and take a second sometimes to be aware of your surroundings,” Oden said.
Miles, still shaken by Monday’s shooting, said he has already started.
“I’m definitely going to be watching, if someone even looks suspicious,” he said. “You don’t know what might happen any day.”
©2019 The Dallas Morning News
Visit The Dallas Morning News at www.dallasnews.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
PHOTO (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): DALLAS-COURTHOUSE-SHOOTING