Texas Department of Public Safety officials overseeing a program Gov. Greg Abbott tapped to help halt potential mass shootings say staffing shortages and privacy concerns stand in the way of taking more preventive action against such massacres. But the department hasn’t specified the number of analysts participating in what’s called the Suspicious Activity Reporting Network, how potential threats are identified or how the program will work differently with additional public resources.
“I’m confident we’re going to need more resources, particularly analytical resources. … Every lead has to be followed up on, we cannot sit on it. It will certainly take resources to do that,” DPS Director Steven McCraw told lawmakers this month.
His comments came during the first meeting of the Texas House Mass Violence Prevention and Community Safety Select Committee, which followed Abbott’s issuance of eight executive orders meant to stop future mass shooters. The orders largely focused on strengthening the Suspicious Activity Reporting Network after the state's two most recent mass shootings.
Last month, a gunman targeting Hispanic people opened fire at a Walmart in El Paso, killing 22 and injuring more than two dozen others. Weeks later in Odessa and Midland, another gunman killed seven and injured 22 others.
“The most significant threat right now is a self-radicalized lone actor using available weapons against soft targets [citizens vulnerable to such attacks] — that’s No. 1,” McCraw told lawmakers.
The Legislature mandated in 2011 that DPS form a policy council to, among other things, develop strategies for reducing terrorism and “criminal enterprises.” That policy council recommended the creation of the Suspicious Activity Reporting Network, according to DPS’ website.
The Texas Tribune first contacted DPS on Sept. 6 to learn how its Suspicious Activity Reporting Network might address mass shootings. DPS initially did not respond to calls or emails. When a reporter made an unscheduled in-person visit to the agency's Austin headquarters, a spokesperson said no one was available for an interview and asked that any questions be emailed to the department.
DPS officials did not respond to emailed questions until 11 days later, after they learned the Tribune planned to publish a story highlighting their unresponsiveness.
DPS spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger sent a statement to the Tribune that said the agency is repurposing personnel from other areas in DPS to support the network. Cesinger also stated that in the past three years, about 2,500 reports have been added to the network and that “multiple instances” have resulted in “law enforcement action.” But it’s not clear what action was taken and how often a report typically leads to thwarting crime.
DPS had not responded by late Wednesday to follow-up questions or made anyone available for an interview about the network. The Senate's Mass Violence Prevention and Community Safety Select Committee is slated to have its first meeting Thursday.
In his directives, Abbott also ordered DPS to raise the public's understanding of how suspicious activity reports will help law enforcement identify potential mass shooters. In response to some of the Tribune's questions about the reports, DPS responded by providing press releases about iWatchTexas, an app and website launched in 2018 that is supposed to be the public-friendly method for reporting suspicious behavior to the suspicious activity network. What happens to those reports — or how law enforcement could use them to prevent mass shootings — remains unclear. Abbott's office deferred questions to DPS.
Monitoring and standardized guidelines
According to a safety document kept on the Texas Judicial Branch website, the Suspicious Activity Reporting Network’s purpose is to “create a holistic view of terrorism or crime-related suspicious activity in Texas.” One of the governor’s orders commits resources from DPS and his office to increasing the staff at Texas’ fusion centers, which are apparently the backbone of the reporting network.
Each of the eight fusion centers overseen by DPS is one of Texas’ largest cities. Fusion centers, where analysts evaluate reports of suspicious activity, are state-run information-sharing hubs. Texas has the second-most fusion centers in the nation. They're used to coordinate varying levels of law enforcement against terrorism and organized crime.
Established with the same post-9/11 objective that created the Department of Homeland Security, fusion centers look for indications people are planning criminal or terroristic operations. That includes monitoring online activity and cross-referencing with additional law enforcement records. Representatives from each of Texas' fusion centers make up the policy council that recommended DPS create the Suspicious Activity Reporting Network.
The safety document and McCraw’s testimony this month both indicate that network analysts monitor social media for warning signs. But DPS has not said what additional surveillance is conducted and what information is kept on those deemed suspicious.
DPS uses guidance from the National Counterterrorism Center to determine the credibility and suspiciousness of a report. Abbott’s directives call for standardized guidelines for determining which reports law enforcement agencies should pass on to the network. But DPS has not responded to questions about how law enforcement agencies currently decide which reports to send to the network.
"They’re literally trying to take life-and-death situations to discern between false complaints, agenda-driven, personality-driven, outright lies, all kinds of issues," said Charley Wilkison, executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. "And they’re trying to discern and use their professional experience and training the keep the public safe."
Wilkison said the network can't "telegraph everything they see" in real time without causing "immeasurable fear" to the public.
"At some level, they’re gonna have to be secretive," he said.
McCraw described suspicious activity in the hearing as “those activities, observable activities, that reasonably indicate that something is occurring that might forewarn either a terrorist event or criminal event.”
In further testimony to the House committee, McCraw mentioned "replacement theory" while discussing the network’s priorities in regard to counterterrorism. Replacement theory, or “The Great Replacement,” is a conspiracy theory forewarning the supposed erasure of white European ethnic groups through mass migration from people of color. The idea is embraced among white supremacist groups and was a cited motivation in the manifesto of the El Paso shooter.
“The propaganda has proliferated throughout the internet world ... and, of course, the mass shooter in El Paso took that theory and applied it to Hispanics, so it’s racially motivated domestic terrorism is what we have," McCraw told lawmakers.
Longstanding concerns over privacy
While McCraw identified staffing as a challenge to the network’s new duties, he said freedom of speech and privacy concerns further limit DPS’ ability to prevent attacks like mass shootings. He also said law enforcement doesn't have access to as much data as it once did.
"Because some social media companies have been selling the data, there’s companies that are now limiting in terms of what they’ll sell to law enforcement," he said. "It’s a little more challenging than it was."
In 2008, the American Civil Liberties Union published "What’s Wrong with Fusion Centers," a report that highlighted a lack of clear oversight, participation from private companies and excessive secrecy as threats posed to civil liberties.
“One of the things that we have not been doing ... because of concerns about privacy is proactively looking for threats,” McCraw told the committee.
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