Here’s how some experts think attacks like the Buffalo shooting might be prevented

·8 min read

To people who study extremist violence, Buffalo wasn’t just the latest mass shooting. It was also the latest missed opportunity to stop one.

Law enforcement officials say the suspect planned his attack for months. But the police didn’t discover it, even when they detained him in June 2021 over an alleged threat to kill. While not blaming police, experts in mass shootings say the case cried out for intervention from a behavioral threat assessment team — a group of law enforcement and mental health professionals who look closely for a person on a path to violence, and try to intervene to disrupt it.

Given the political gridlock over gun laws, they say this model may be the best hope to reduce the frequency of mass casualty attacks that have become a fixture of American life.

“What appears to have happened with this case in Buffalo is you have an at-risk individual who was raising serious concern to the point where he was taken into custody ... and had a mental health evaluation,” said Mark Follman, author of "Trigger Points," a new book examining efforts to prevent mass shootings. “But then that was kind of the end of it, as far as we know.”

Officials say police were called after accused shooter Payton Gendron answered a question during a class by saying that his post-graduation plans were “murder/suicide.” The threat was not specific enough to be a crime, but police took him for a psychiatric evaluation in a hospital, where he stayed overnight. They said mental health professionals there determined he wasn’t a danger to himself or others, and released him. He returned to his high school and graduated without incident.

Experts say that the psychiatric evaluation would have been the ideal time to bring in a threat assessment team, a specialized group of mental health and law enforcement professionals whose goal is to determine whether someone is at risk of becoming violent, and if so, to attempt to provide mental health or other counseling. New York State Police, which responded to the threat, does not have such a unit. Nor do most police departments.

In chat logs reviewed by NBC News and linked to the suspect by law enforcement officials, Gendron wrote that his mental evaluation consisted of a 15-minute conversation in an emergency room. He says he lied — and played off his threat as a joke.

“I got out of it because I stuck with the story that I was getting out of class and I just stupidly wrote that down,” he wrote in January. “That is the reason I believe I am still able to purchase guns. It was not a joke, I wrote that down because that’s what I was planning to do. Perhaps it was a cry of help from me, I’m not actually sure.”

Experts believe that’s exactly what it was.

“From a behavioral aspect, he is crying out for help,” said Katherine Schweit, who ran the FBI’s mass shooter program. “We see that in so many instances, particularly with younger shooters, where they are just crying out, bleeding out this leakage, to show how brittle they are.”

In typical police-requested psychiatric evaluation, a subject “will be seen by a mental health professional that often does not understand this concept of moving on a pathway to violence,” said J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist who consults with the FBI in the discipline of behavioral threat assessment and management. “Most mental health professionals are not trained to understand targeted violence. They’re trained in the assessment of impulsivity, the assessment of high states of emotionality. And that’s not what you get in cases such as this.”

Behavioral threat assessments are designed to inquire more deeply into a person’s state of mind, in search of behaviors that research has found are common among mass shooters. And if the person is determined to pose a risk, the team engages over a period of time.

In online postings that authorities say he wrote, Gendron described becoming radicalized to his racist worldview while having to stay at home during the pandemic, where he marinated in conspiracy theories on sites like 4chan in the darker corners of the internet. But he says he carefully hid his plans, even from his family. It will never been known whether any type of intervention could have stopped him, but experts say they have seen behavioral threat management work, time and again.

“Threat assessment and threat management sounds like big words, but really what they are is a group of people who have different skill sets that kind of act like a cast on somebody’s broken arm,” Schweit said. “They just wrap around that person and manage and monitor that person through time. It might be a coach, who finds a student who’s having trouble, who gives them extra time. And it might be a teacher who finds a student who is brilliant in certain areas, but feels left out, and maybe that teacher finds somebody for that child to tutor.”

Threat assessment teams are active in many school districts, set up in response to the wave of school shootings. But the intensive intervention they offer is much harder to implement outside a school setting, experts say. Gendron made the threat shortly before he graduated from high school. After that he was attending community college and living with his parents, and would have had to agree to counseling.

Nonetheless, it’s been done. A few major police agencies practice the discipline, and some firms offer the service to corporations to stave off workplace violence. The Los Angeles Police Department founded its unit decades ago in response to the problem of disturbed, obsessed individuals stalking Hollywood actors. Proponents say those units should be as ubiquitous as Joint Terrorism Task Forces, the FBI-led regional centers that empower law enforcement agencies to share information and jointly work terrorism cases.

“What we have found very effective is sometimes just outreach by a law enforcement officer, to make contact with the person and literally develop a friendship with the person,” Meloy said. “Often these individuals, they’re lonely, life is not going well. And just somebody showing an interest in their life and listening to them makes a difference. It sounds very much like a soft approach, which it is, but we forget how the deep-seated feelings of loneliness and frustration and humiliation can often be the seeds that lead to grievance and anger and decision-making that is very destructive, and lead to acts like we have seen in in Buffalo.”

It’s not uncommon for people who commit mass shootings to have previously come on the radar of law enforcement.

Just a week ago, NBC News reported on the FBI’s 2016 encounter with a troubled young man who had made a threat in Aztec, New Mexico. He convinced the agents he didn’t mean it, and the FBI closed the case. Although an FBI agent recommended counseling, there is no evidence he got it, and his father helped him buy a handgun. A year and a half later, he carried out a school shooting.

Last year, the FBI acknowledged that agents interviewed a man in 2020 after his own mother called police, concerned about his state of mind. The FBI took no action, and he went on to shoot eight people at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis.

For his book, Follman embedded with threat assessment teams and watched what he believes were successful efforts to stave off violence.

It’s hard to say how often that has happened, he said.

“You’re talking about stopping attacks before they occur. So then how do you prove that violence didn’t occur because of what you did?” Follman said. “But by getting inside a lot of these threat cases, and watching threat assessment teams work, I was able to see some very compelling examples of situations where you had people who were in crisis, who were setting up for some pretty scary situations, who were thinking about violence over a long period of time, who were taking steps to plan and prepare for it. In some cases, people who had access to weapons.”

Based on those cases, he added, “you can see a very compelling argument that had there not been an intervention by a threat assessment team, that this person very likely would have gone on to commit a violent attack. So I came to see, I think there have been dozens of cases like this that had been prevented, perhaps even hundreds throughout the country over recent years.”

The shootings that don’t happen obviously don’t make the news, Schweit said.

“Local and federal law enforcement work every day with people who are on a trajectory towards violence, and then they end up not committing that violence,” she said. “We call it threat assessment and threat management. And in some cases, it’s not done. And that’s probably the situation that we have in Buffalo.”