Only you can prevent forest fires, Smokey Bear once preached.
And quite possibly, only you can prevent massive bloodshed in your town.
In the wake of two mass shootings that shocked the nation Aug. 3-4, The Gazette interviewed law enforcement leaders in Rock and Walworth counties. They all agreed, they need help from their communities.
In most major mass shootings, it was revealed later that family, friends or others knew about the shooter in advance, and often they never told anyone.
In some instances, police received tips but did not follow through, notably in the case of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting.
But local leaders say they will follow through and they have followed through.
Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore said his officers have awakened families in the middle of the night because that’s when the tips came in.
Often, the tips will turn out to be nothing but a misunderstanding. “But that’s what we’re here for. Better safe than sorry,” said Capt. Todd Christiansen of the Rock County Sheriff’s Office.
“We are now investigating things that five or 10 years ago we may not have looked at in the same way because now we can’t take anything for granted,” said Beloit Police Chief David Zibolski.
That is especially true when it comes to threats against schools, Zibolski added.
Walworth County Sheriff Kurt Picknell said people need to be attuned to any conversation in which someone is talking strangely, expressing extreme thoughts or expressing too much interest in something.
Often, investigations into social-media threats end with a disorderly conduct arrest or police determining that no real threat existed, Zibolski said.
Police sometimes end up educating people to express themselves in ways that can’t be construed as threats of violence, Zibolski said.
Train and drill
The leaders said preparing for mass shootings has become a regular part of the job in recent years.
All of them said their officers get regular training in how to handle “active shooters.”
They also consider shootings when planning for large gatherings.
Picknell would not discuss police tactics in dealing with threats, so as not to give up an advantage.
“It’s built into the routine of our operation,” Picknell said.
Moore said his department provided additional security at some events in response to community concerns in the wake of the recent shootings in which 32 people died and 51 were wounded in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio.
But it was far from the first time local officers have been called on to guard against a possible mass shooting.
The graduation threat
Consider June 2018, when a man in Texas threatened to shoot up a Janesville high school graduation, apparently targeting his ex-wife and son, Moore said.
Moore discussed the threat but would not reveal which of the city’s two public high school graduations was the target, in order to keep the family’s identity private.
Someone who knew the man told Janesville police of threats on social media, and police and school officials almost moved the ceremony indoors, where it could be better secured, Moore said.
Detectives worked around the clock with the FBI, and on graduation day, they saw a photo on social media showing the man with a Spotted Cow beer sign in the background.
The beer is sold only in Wisconsin, so police worried he was already here, but it turned out the sign was in a bar in Texas, Moore said.
Texas and federal authorities ultimately took the man into custody on a mental-health hold.
Zibolski said government could do more to address the mental-health aspects of mass shooters, and he said video games in which players slaughter large numbers over and over have got to play a role.
But Moore said mental health and video games are not the prime characteristics of shooters, at least not according to the FBI.
The man in the graduation incident exhibited many of the traits the FBI has said are common to most mass shooters, Moore said:
- He was narcissistic, saying in an online video that he saw himself as a messiah, and he had disciples.
- He had a strong desire for infamy.
- He had a past that included domestic violence.
- Access to weapons is another trait, but investigators were not able to verify if the man had that.
Janesville police found out after the graduation investigation that the man had threatened presidents Obama and Trump and that he is awaiting trial in federal court, pending a competency evaluation.
Moore noted the 2017 case of Joseph Jakubowski, who raided a gun store and disappeared, triggering what was probably the county’s largest manhunt ever.
Jakubowski exhibited some of the FBI traits: resentment against government, a desire for infamy as expressed in the manifesto he sent to the White House, access to weapons and, quite likely, narcissistic tendencies.
In a recent article in the Madison weekly Isthmus, Jakubowski is quoted as writing to a reporter that he will never reveal the location of the guns he stole and that if he gets out of federal prison, “For the sake of a lot of lives, it may be good if I don’t get released.”
Copycats of death
The last trait the FBI focuses on is the copycat factor. Many shootings happen shortly after a notable shooting, Moore said, and that’s why extra security was provided for some local events shortly after El Paso and Dayton.
Moore said he told his officers the week after El Paso and Dayton to be on high alert, pay special attention to suspicious activities and to be more visible than usual at large events.
If it happens
Beloit and Janesville police and sheriff’s deputies in Rock and Walworth counties, and most if not all other departments in the area, all train to deal with “active shooters.”
Janesville police have organized county-wide training at businesses and churches as well as schools.
“We know that one day an incident like that can occur,” Moore said.
Rock County law enforcement agencies are developing a countywide, mutual-aid system for major events such as a mass shooting, much like the one fire departments use, Christiansen said.
But it’s better to prevent rather than react to a shooter, Moore noted.
“Time and time again after the event has unfolded and we have casualties and we take a look back at these individuals, we find out that many people in the community had clues, and they didn’t speak up,” Moore said.
“I encourage our community to call us. … Put that responsibility on our department and let us work through the circumstances and the evidence and see what we can do.”
If nothing else, an investigation strips the anonymity from someone who might be thinking of doing something, and he knows police know about him, Moore said.
After the Parkland shooting, Moore called his supervisors to a meeting and asked them if they would have stayed outside while the shooter was inside, and he got a resounding “no,” he said.
“I told them that’s the answer I wanted to hear.”
Some of those interviewed for this story said the potential victims—anyone in the community—need to prepare themselves.
Most schools provide such training to students and staff, teaching them to run, hide, and, if there’s no other choice, to fight.
Picknell said people need to develop an “enlightened awareness” of their surroundings and to have a plan of action they can put into place quickly, if they need to.
As for the police themselves, most are likely more watchful in the wake of a mass shooting somewhere else in the country, Christiansen said.
“Everyone wants to go home at the end of their shift,” Christiansen said. “So it should be making them more cautious. I know it made me that way, and still does.”