Media and Crisis Management
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Media and Crisis Management

Tucson shooting – what you should learn from it

Posted on: July 29th, 2012

Crisis Management: Tucson shooting – what you should learn from itCrisis avoidance

‘Tis better to overreact than underreact in crisis management.  The penalty for doing too little when something goes wrong is often far more severe than the penalty for doing too much.  A powerful thought as we ponder how to curb mass shootings like that of the accused Jared Lee Loughner in Tucson.

Three months before the killing and wounding of 19 people, Pima Community College suspended 5-year student Loughner after he behaved ever more bizarrely and scarily around students and faculty.  Class outbursts, disturbing Internet postings and an alarming video prompted the college to bar him from campus until a mental health professional claimed that Loughner no longer presented “…a danger to himself or others.”

Many observers, including me, thought the college responded well to a complex challenge.  Out of 70,000 students, differentiating a dangerous person from the merely loony is practically impossible. Loughner had apparently not been judged mentally ill and, even if he had, statistically the mentally ill rarely turn violent.    Furthermore, no laws compel colleges to inform outside authorities of concerning students.  They can notify mental health professionals who, upon learning of a specific threat, must inform law enforcement.  Pima spokesperson Paul Schwalbach described Loughner as”…a disruptive and an, odd, strange sort of character.He wasn”t dangerous.”  Throw in liability and confidentiality restrictions and, once again, the college seemed to have done well.

Nevertheless, questions about the Loughner case have nagged at me.  A wise and pragmatic friend emailed me that she was mystified why campus police didn’t alert local law enforcement just to be safe.  A reasonable query considering Loughner had at least five encounters with campus police.  The Wall Street Journal’s Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. wondered why the college stopped at expulsion and didn’t go further.  He asked, “Why is expelling him a solution” especially when most know that such actions can be precipitating events that drive disintegrating personalities to violence.  That’s when I began to think about overreaction vs. underreaction.

Immediately after the troubled Virginia Tech student killed 32 people most crisis managers said the school underreacted to the initial shooting.  Thinking that the shooter was off-campus, involved in a domestic dispute, and someone they knew, officials delayed notifying faculty and students and calling all available police.  The state slammed Tech for its slow motion. As of 2008, the Higher Education Opportunity Act now requires colleges to “immediately notify the campus community once a significant emergency or dangerous situation involving an immediate threat to the health or safety of students or staff has been confirmed as occurring on campus.”  Action, or possibly overreaction, is expected, demanded.

So in the wake of Tucson, I think colleges, universities, and even businesses have a new duty.  When in doubt, notify authorities of individuals who “make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.” Yes, that’s imprecise, but a gut feeling will probably be more predictive than a policy description.

Given our struggling economy we should not hold our collective breath waiting for greater investment in the mental health system.  We must protect ourselves.  When in doubt, even without liability and regulatory protection, colleges – and companies – should default to alerting law enforcement of troubled individuals.  The penalty for underreaction could be bodybags.

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