Leaving the gun debate to others, I propose that we focus on something more easily fixable about the Florida shooting: the epic failure of data integration that allowed this tragedy to happen.
“Every single red flag was present. If this kid was missed, there is no system.”
Broward County Public Defender Howard Finkelstein is right – there was a staggering amount of information available in multiple databases about Nikolas Cruz. But it wasn’t connected.
The most stunning was the FBI’s disclosure that on Jan. 5, a person “close to Cruz” contacted the bureau to report concerns about “Cruz’s gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior, and disturbing social media posts, as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting.”
Despite protocol, the information was not assessed as a threat to life, and the agency chose not to pursue an investigation, according to the office of Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa), whose committee was briefed by the bureau. And that was the second time the FBI was put on notice about Cruz.
A Mississippi bail bondsman contacted the bureau after seeing a comment posted on YouTube where someone identifying themselves as “Nikolas Cruz” said: “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.” But the special agent in charge of the Miami field office said the office could not identify who had posted the comment, notwithstanding a Washington Post Nexis search that revealed only 22 individuals with the name Nikolas Cruz. Plus, Google, which owns YouTube and could have confirmed Cruz’s identity, was never asked for the information by the FBI, according to Grassley.
And then there are Cruz’s many encounters with police. The Broward County Sheriff’s Office had responded to 18 calls since 2010 about him. One call made in November expressed concern that Cruz “believes he could be a school shooter in the making.” But none of the responses to Cruz’s house resulted in a felony conviction nor an involuntary hospitalization under Florida’s Baker Act, which kept his profile under the radar.
Cruz also posted threatening comments like “I wanna shoot people with my AR-15″ on multiple websites and posed with guns and knives on his Instagram page, according to CNN.
His behavior at school was more evidence waiting to be discovered. Cruz was pressured to withdraw from Douglas High in 2017 for disciplinary violations, as reported by the Miami Herald. Teachers and students told the Herald that Cruz “cursed at teachers, fought with and threatened classmates, and brought a backpack with bullets to school.” Samantha Fuentes, a student injured in the shooting, said her peers would even joke about Cruz becoming the next school shooter.
Florida’s Department of Children and Families also had a thick file on Cruz. Its investigation unearthed that he not only had behavioral struggles, such as cutting his arms on Snapchat, but that he planned to purchase a firearm. Still, without the benefit of all the other information on Cruz, it was determined that his “final level of risk is low.” The Naples Daily News reported that an investigator with the department had previously warned the state of Cruz’s intentions to buy a gun after his 18th birthday.
So you’d think that when in February of 2017 Cruz legally bought the AR-15 that eventually he used to kill those 17 students and faculty members, the purchase would have revealed many of these warning signs. But such background checks would only have alerted the clerk at Sunrise Tactical Supply to felony convictions, domestic-violence reports, known drug addictions, and involuntary commitments to a mental institution – not the police responses to Cruz’s house, nor his expulsion from school, or his frightening social-media postings. And in the absence of a national gun registry, the purchase itself would not have been a trigger when any subsequent issues with Cruz arose.
Developing effective data integration that can prevent crime is complex, but technologically possible. One difficulty is determining how certain “triggers” relate to one another. Cruz’s social-media postings, for example, might not emerge on the FBI’s radar until the system recognizes their correlation with the state’s previous assessment of his mental health. A report from the University of Applied Sciences in Kiel, Germany, expressed confidence in an approach called Generic Data Modeling that accounts for those relationships. Researchers indicated that the method can “develop flexible data models that scale with the agile requirements for crime fighting,” making it possible to “integrate data from different heterogeneous sources easily.”
Data management might raise the hackles of civil libertarians. But Harvard Law professor and constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe told me we should be able to satisfy those concerns: “None of the data points you’re talking about involve anything terribly private. The fact that he was doing target practice and shooting cats in the neighborhood and squirrels was hardly a private matter. The fact that he posted his desire to be a professional school shooter, he was exposing that to the world. He was essentially crying out, ‘Somebody stop me!’ And it is unfortunate, unfortunate puts it mildly, that the dots were not adequately connected. We shouldn’t underestimate the magnitude of the task the FBI has. They get hundreds and thousands of leads, some of which may be at least as alarming as this but don’t end up in school shootings. But, I do think we can do better than we’ve done.”
Catching Cruz should have been a keystroke away. He was not living off the grid like Ted Kaczynski. His name was in multiple files, able to be cross-tabbed. So while the politicians dither in Second Amendment debate, it’s time for us to work smarter, not just harder.