The Federal Bureau of Investigation released Wednesday new information about the Washington Navy Yard Shooting on Sept. 16, 2013.
On that Monday morning Aaron Alexis, 34, legitimately entered the yard and building No. 197 as a result of his work as a contractor. According to the FBI, using a Remington 870 shotgun and a Beretta handgun Alexis went on a one-hour killing spree that left 12 dead and four injured, stopped only when law enforcement officers killed Alexis. Investigation to date has determined that Alexis acted alone.
Alexis was a former Navy Reserve officer with a history of mental illness.
Palo Alto University Professor Christopher Weaver focuses on forensic psychology and studies how trauma—in particular post-traumatic stress disorder—and substance use can influence criminal behavior. He's also conducted a funded training and research program designed to increase police officer effectiveness in working with people with mental illness.
Professor Weaver answered a few questions to help Patch readers gain more understanding to what happened at the Navy Yard and other similar tragedies.
Question: It has been said there were many missed warning signs that were not "red enough" to see in Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis. He had six background checks in six years by either the U. S. government or hired contractors. As a published expert in the area of risk assessment, can you offer some insight as to why these may have been missed?
Dr. Christopher Weaver: There are some potential misunderstandings out there in what I’ve seen in media reports regarding our ability to anticipate acts of violence. First, we have to be careful of our 20/20 hindsight vision, if you will. For example, it may appear after the fact that an individual’s history of severe mental illness played a role in bringing about events that already happened. However, it may surprise people to know that many such variables, including a history of schizophrenia, do not appear to be reliable predictors of violent acts before they happen. This is because the vast majority of people experiencing these challenges don’t go on to commit such acts of violence.
Question: What about the fact that there seems to have been multiple signs in this particular case, including a history of illegal acts with a gun?
Weaver: To make use of multiple risk factors, for example a history of serious mental illness plus a history of impulsive or violent acts with guns, first requires that all of that information is at some point in the hands of someone who knows what to do with it. The simple fact is that health and mental health care professionals are just recently coming around to the idea that legal issues are intricately linked with medical and mental health care. It is often not yet a part of those care providing cultures to routinely gather information about legal histories and access to firearms and weapons. By the time a risk becomes obvious, it is often difficult to get accurate information because these care providers are not linked to important sources of information. We see a similar challenge in the opposite direction, getting law enforcement to realize the perhaps unfortunate reality that they have become the front lines of mental health.
Question: This is the second shooting/attack we’ve seen by a veteran in seven months, the first being Christopher Dorner, a former LAPD officer and United States Navy Reserve officer, who carried out a series of shooting attacks on police officers and their families. What similarities do you see, if any, between these two cases from a psychological point of view?
Weaver: From a professional perspective, I think we see that they are both extreme cases that may not be appropriate to base sweeping policy decisions on. I do see in them illustrations of how bad things can get when multiple stressors build up for military veterans, some of which may be directly related to having served in the military. But, I also see in them the potential for the public to get a negative view of military veterans when looking at isolated instances such as these horrific acts. In reality, it’s likely that many more military veterans were part of the law enforcement responses to the Navy Yard shooting and the Christopher Dorner situations. Veterans are more likely to be on the side of keeping our families safe, but it’s the illegal and violent actions of the few that make the news.
Question: I understand you have designed a police-training program that is being led and implemented by yourself and others throughout California, which helps cops identify a crime being committed by a veteran suffering from PTSD, and giving them the tools they need to keep the situation from escalating. What are some of the signs that are used to identify an individual is a veteran with PTSD when a crime is taking place?
Weaver: Yes, it’s clear that PTSD is playing a role in some criminal offending, including escalation of situations that perhaps could be deescalated before they get out of hand. I’ve had the good fortune to be able to work with important government partners, including the education divisions of the National Center for PTSD and the Veterans Justice Outreach programs that are centered right here in the Palo Alto Veterans Administration. But, we also have a number of excellent private organizations, including our partner Swords to Plowshares in San Francisco, and a number of highly skilled and professional police agencies all around the Bay who have provided overwhelming demand for what have now grown in to a number of local and national training projects.
Question: What are some of the tools police can use when dealing with veterans in these types of situations that can aid a police officer in responding in a way that in the end, results in a safer outcome for both the officer and the veteran?
Weaver: Police officers deal with a range of human behavior that requires a range of levels of force to address. They understandably spend a lot of training time on the upper end of the force spectrum, including physical self-defense skills and firearms training. We try to provide some content on the other end of the spectrum, in the form of advanced verbal de-escalation skills. These are the skills that mental health workers use day in and day out, and we’ve found that officers appreciate having some of our tools in their own toolboxes, if you will. We’re more than happy to give them.
Question: Have you had some success with this approach?
Weaver: Yes, it’s one of the most rewarding parts of my job to hear about the successes we’ve had with these training programs. Early in our program, we heard back from an officer who had detained a veteran who was being threatening out in public. The officer spotted some of the signs and symptoms of traumatic brain injury that we teach, and decided to stop by a nearby TBI unit before taking the veteran to jail. It turned out that this veteran was a patient at that facility and the officer was able to determine that leaving the veteran with treatment staff was appropriate for the situation. This was a win for the officer who protected the public and gets to go back to doing so, a win for the treatment staff who get to help their patient in a critical time of need, and certainly a win for the veteran who didn’t get a criminal record that day.
Question: Last, how do you think the types of horrific crimes that were committed by Christopher Dorner and Aaron Alexis be prevented in the future – or is that even possible to consider?
Weaver: Prevention will take a large societal shift. We can all work toward reducing the stigma around mental illness and demand adequate funding for treatment services and research that address the links between mental illness and crime, even if it’s just by paying attention to these issues when we vote. But, increasing communication and collaboration between mental health and law enforcement agencies will go a long way toward this goal. There are model programs out there that many Bay Area police agencies are trying to implement, including the Crisis Intervention Team or CIT model. Support your local agency’s efforts to implement these programs, and demand of your local health and mental health providers that they collaborate in these efforts. So many of us have the same goals, and we just need to put our efforts together.