Steven McCraw, Director of Texas Department of Public Safety, gives his testimony before the House Select Committe on Mass Violence Prevention & Community Safety committee on Sept. 17. Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune
Texas Department of Public Safety officials overseeing a program Gov.Â Greg AbbottÂ tapped to help halt potentialÂ mass shootings say staffing shortages and privacy concernsÂ stand in the way of taking more preventive action against such massacres.
But the department hasnât specified the current number of analysts participating in whatâs called the Suspicious Activity Reporting Network, how potential threats areÂ identified or how the program will work differently with additional public resources.
âIâm confident weâre going to need more resources, particularly analytical resourcesâŠEvery lead has to be followed up on, we cannot sit on it. It will certainly take resources to do that,â 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 AbbottâsÂ issuance of eight executive ordersÂ meant to stop future mass shooters. The orders were largely focused on strengthening the Suspicious Activity Reporting Network after the state’s two most recent mass shootings.
Last month, a gunmanÂ targeting Hispanic peopleÂ opened fireÂ at a Walmart in El Paso, killing 22 and injuring more than two dozen others. Weeks later in Odessa and Midland,Â another gunmanÂ killed seven and injured 22 others.
âThe most significant threat right now is a self-radicalized lone actor using available weapons against soft targets [citizens vulnerable to such attacks] â thatâs number one,â McCraw told lawmakers.
The Legislature in 2011 mandated that DPS form a policy council to, among other things, develop strategies for reducing terrorism and âcriminal enterprises.â That policy council recommended the creation of the Suspicious Activity Reporting Network, according to DPSâ website.
The Texas Tribune first contacted DPS on Sept. 6 to learn how its Suspicious Activity Reporting Network may 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 could be made available for an interview and asked that any questions be emailed to the department.
DPS officialsÂ did not respond to emailedÂ questions until 11 days later, afterÂ they learned The Tribune planned to publish a story highlightingÂ their unresponsiveness.
DPS spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger sent a statement to the TribuneÂ thatÂ said the agency is currently repurposing personnel from other areas in DPS to support the network. Cesinger also stated that in the past three years,Â about 2,500 reports have been added to the network and that âmultiple instancesâ have resulted in âlaw enforcement action.” But itâs not clear what action was taken and how often a report typically leads to thwarted crime.
DPS by late Wednesday had notÂ responded to follow-up questions nor 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,Â Abbott also ordered DPS to raise the public’sÂ 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 providingÂ press releasesÂ about iWatchTexas, an app and website launched in 2018 that is supposed to be theÂ public-friendly method for reporting suspicious behaviorÂ to the suspicious activity network. What happens to those reports â or how law enforcement could use them to prevent mass shootings â remains unclear. Abbott’s office deferred questions to DPS.
Monitoring and standardized guidelines
According to aÂ safety documentÂ kept on the Texas Judicial Branch website, the Texas Suspicious Activity Reporting Networkâs purpose is to, âcreate a holistic view of terrorism or crime-related suspicious activity in Texas.â One of the governorâs orders commits âresourcesâ from DPS and his office to increasing the staff at Texasâ fusion centers, which are apparently the backbone of the reporting network.
Each of the eight fusion centers overseen by DPS are located in Texasâ largest cities where analysts evaluate reports of suspicious activity. Fusion centers are state-run information sharing hubs, of which Texas has the second-most in the nation, 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 activityÂ 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 McCrawâs testimony this monthÂ both indicate that networkÂ 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. Abbottâs 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.
“Theyâre 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 theyâre 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 theyâre gonna have to be secretive,” he said.
McCraw described suspicious activity in the hearing as, âThose activities, observable activities, that reasonably indicate that something is occurring that might forewarn either a terrorist event or criminal event.â
In further testimony to the House committee, McCraw mentioned âreplacement theoryâ while discussing the networkâs priorities in regard to counterterrorism. Replacement theory or, âThe Great Replacementâ is a conspiracy theory forewarning the supposed erasure of white European ethnic groups through mass migration from people of color. The idea isÂ well-embraced among white supremacist groups and was a cited motivation in the manifesto of the El Paso shooter.
âThe 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 itâs racially motivated domestic terrorism is what we have,” McCraw told lawmakers.
Longstanding concerns over privacy
While McCraw identified staffing as a challenge to the networkâs new duties, he said freedom of speech and privacy concerns further limit DPSâ 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, thereâs companies that are now limiting in terms of what theyâll sell to law enforcement,” he said. “Itâs a little more challenging than it was.”
In 2008, the American Civil Liberties UnionÂ published, “Whatâs Wrong with Fusion Centers,” a report that highlighted a lack of clear oversight, participation from private companies and excessive secrecy as threats fusion centers pose to civil liberties.
âOne of the things that we have not been doing…because of concerns about privacy is proactively looking for threats,â McCraw told the committee.
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