Field Notes

FBI agent focuses on mystery of active shooters

FBI agent focuses on mystery of active shooters
Sandy Flint

It was three days after the shooting at Clackamas Town Center and Sandra Flint was in the Portland FBI headquarters setting up the conference room for a training session scheduled for the next day.

A special agent for more than 20 years and a trained firearms instructor, Flint is also the crisis management coordinator for the office. There hadn’t been a lot of downtime the previous couple of days and she was focused on getting the room ready.

“Brenda burst into the room,” she said Saturday, looking back on that day, referring to one of her colleagues. “She told me that my three phones – my personal cell, my work cell and my desk – were all ringing off the hook. ‘Can’t you hear the overhead pages?’ she wanted to know.

“I told her, apparently not.”

Flint called the switchboard. Her husband, Mark, had desperately been trying to get her. They had him on hold for her.

“I asked him what’s going on and his voice was all cracky and shaky,” she says. “He told me that he had heard from my brother and sister-in-law but he didn’t know if the kids were OK. I asked him what he was talking about. And that’s when I first heard about what had happened in Sandy Hook.”

She ran upstairs to the office’s command post and switched it on.

“I needed to know what was going on.”

Flint is the aunt of a student who was in the middle school and one in the high school.

“I was able to collect information not just from the media but from FBI headquarters,” she remembers. “And I was able to figure out that my niece and nephew were OK before we got the call from my brother.”

Even though she had just been heavily involved with a similar – though, as it turns out, on a smaller scale – situation just days earlier, Sandy Hook brought it home on a personal level.

“It opened my eyes to the other side, a very different perspective,” she says. “I saw what it was like from the perspective of a family or friend wanting to know what was going on.

“The situation, both really, show just how much we know and we don’t know. It’s why we refer to every situation being situational - no two are quite alike.”

On Friday, Flint had led a bunch of reporters through the latest research into active shooters.

These are the people who walk into a school, an office building, a movie theater and start shooting. Sometimes they wound a handful of people. Other times they kill a dozen or more. It is Adam Lanza from Sandy Hook. It is Jacob Tyler Roberts from Town Center.

It turns out there is a lot that we just don’t know about why these incidents happen. Really, we’re not even sure what to look out for. Yes, there are some things that are known - they tend to acquire weapons, exhibit extremely reckless behavior and are violent toward a family member - but who they are and what sets them down that path is still a mystery.

One thing that does seem certain is that the kid in school who writes in his notebook about how he wants to kill everyone – that person is not likely to follow through. The person who opens fire on large groups of people often does not give a warning about what’s coming.

A recent analysis of active-shooter incidents from 2000-2012 showed that 94 percent of the shooters were men. And that’s pretty much where the similarities ended. The youngest was 13. The oldest was 88. They came from different racial and ethnic categories.

A little more than half the time, the shooter had a connection to the place he was attacking. And that means a little less than half the time, they did not, it was just a place they picked.

The average incident lasted 12 minutes.

The median police response time was three minutes. Here’s two facts that go along with that – the five largest number of casualties occurred even though the police were there within three minutes. In half the incidents – the incident was over by the time the police arrived.

“The thing is,” says Flint, “we can’t depend on statistics to tell us everything. With human nature, sometimes we just can’t explain why people choose to do what they do. We collect as much information as we can and try to learn.”

Flint says one of the things they focus on is try to identify facilities that could be vulnerable so they can work on those issues.

“One of the things that probably helped keep things at Town Center from being worse is that all of the agencies involved had trained on this scenario,” Flint says. “So, when it actually happened, they knew what to do.”

Flint says since Sandy Hook, active-shooter training has increased.

“The goal is to have people train until the response becomes muscle and mental memory,” she says.

“At the same time, it’s not that simple. Every attack is different. There is no one common factor that makes them alike.

“People crack and behave differently.”

There was a day, she says, when mass shootings were unheard of, when people wouldn’t dream that something like that could happen.

“What changed?” she asks. “That’s the mystery.”