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After two Texas mass shootings, Greg Abbott wants to strengthen a vague network officials won’t discuss

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 current 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 were 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 number one,” McCraw told lawmakers.

The Legislature in 2011 mandated 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 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 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 currently 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 thwarted crime.

DPS by late Wednesday had not 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, 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 Texas 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 are located in Texas’ 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 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 well-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.”

Texas’ fusion centers have a 27-page-long privacy policy supposedly preventing them from collecting information on people solely based on details like religious and political affiliations or race, citizenship and place of origin. Individuals may also request information kept by the fusion centers about themselves to verify accuracy, but there are exceptions if it will compromise an investigation.

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 fusion centers pose 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.

Author: CARRINGTON TATUMThe Texas Tribune

Disclosure: Walmart has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Video: Cornyn – ‘El Paso, Odessa Shootings demand solutions, not political point-scoring’

WASHINGTON – Monday on the floor, U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) discussed his visits to El Paso and Odessa after last month’s shootings and urged his Senate colleagues to come together on solutions.

Excerpts of Sen. Cornyn’s floor remarks are below, and video can be found above.

“In a community as tight-knit as El Paso, the devastation was immeasurable.”

“The day after the shooting, I visited El Paso and met with several of the victims as well as the law enforcement officers responding to the tragedy.”

“Less than a month later, we experienced another shooting.”

“I had the pleasure of thanking the men and women in blue, our law enforcement officers, for their quick response in Odessa and thanked them for the work they do every day.”

“The question is, of course, how did this happen? How can we prevent it from happening again?”

“I’ve been speaking with my constituents as well as colleagues here in the Senate over the last few weeks about what legislative solutions might look like. And I do expect us to have a wide-ranging debate on the subject in the coming days.”

“In the case of the Fix NICS Act, it was able to become law because it had broad support from Republicans and Democrats as well as the President, so this will guide my approach again.”

“I’m not interested in scoring political points or introducing bills so we can pat ourselves on the back and run our next campaign on it. I’m actually interested in trying to solve the problem and saving lives in the process. That’s what we did on the Fix NICS Act.”

“We owe it to all of them and to ourselves to work on solutions to prevent more communities from experiencing these type of tragedies.”

Analysis: The delicate balance of protecting Texans in a state that worships guns

Gov. Greg Abbott’s declaration that words are inadequate and must be met with action signals a turn from politics to policy. He’s better, historically speaking, at the former. What he’s proposing now will require some coalition-building in a divided political culture and with a Legislature riven by scandal.

Abbott had a good legislative session this year, along with his compadres, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. They racked up wins on school finance and property tax legislation, managed a session that didn’t devolve — like the 2017 session — into angry debate over outlawing “sanctuary cities” and regulating access to public bathrooms.

It was a good session, but not one that your grandchildren will read about in their Texas history textbooks. That’s really the nature of state government: It’s more notable in its failures than in its successes, a frustrating setup for politically ambitious people who aspire to fame, glory and maybe even higher office. The list of historically renowned Texas governors is a lot shorter than the history of the state.

But the governance problem of the day — mass shootings — is also deeply political. The governor is clearly feeling the heat. His recent “mistakes were made” apology for throwing matches at the dry straw that is the immigration debate was passive, but it was still an apology. More importantly, it was uncharacteristic for a governor who only rarely admits error.

He followed with a list of “executive actions” that attempt to raise law enforcement attention to and communications about reports of people who might pose threats. He’s promising legislative proposals next week.

The gunfight in Texas government is tired and predictable, and changing its direction would require breaking from party doctrine, particularly on the Republican side. The proof is fresh: In that same successful legislative session this year, the governor asked lawmakers to respond to mass shootings at a school in Santa Fe, near Houston, and at a church in Sutherland Springs, near San Antonio. Lawmakers addressed school safety and mental health, but all of the gun laws approved this year loosened restrictions on their sales, use and possession.

Abbott’s digging for a meaningful response now. Bonnen and Patrick formed a joint committee on “mass violence prevention and community safety.” Five dozen Texas lawmakers wrote a public letter to the governor and held news conferences around the state calling for a special legislative session on guns, with a to-do list of regulatory legislation they couldn’t pass during the regular session earlier this year.

That triggered a cranky response from the governor’s office: “Gov. Abbott made clear in Odessa that all strategies are on the table that will lead to laws that make Texans safer. But that doesn’t include a helter-skelter approach that hastily calls for perfunctory votes that divide legislators along party lines. Instead, the governor seeks consensus rather than division. The Democrats who are part of today’s partisan pitch can be part of the bipartisan legislative process announced yesterday that is geared toward achieving real solutions, or they can be part of politics as usual that will accomplish nothing. Legislating on tough issues is hard and takes time. If Democrats really want to change the law, they need to stop talking to cameras and start talking to colleagues in the Capitol to reach consensus.”

Abbott himself added a tweet to the conversation Wednesday, ending it with, “Legislators can be part of the process or part of the problem.”

Sounds like the beginning of a beautiful friendship, doesn’t it?

And it’s not as though Republican lawmakers would enter a legislative session in partisan lockstep. They’ve got political troubles of their own that have nothing at all to do with firearms.

Immediately after the regular legislative session, Bonnen and state Rep. Dustin Burrows of Lubbock, at the time the chairman of the House Republican Caucus, held an hourlong meeting at the state Capitol with Michael Quinn Sullivan of Empower Texans, an activist and regular source of annoyance for the Republican establishment. Long story short: Bonnen and Burrows said a lot of things that would offend other House members, Sullivan recorded their meeting and has played it for some of those members, and the Texas Rangers are investigating and trying to sort it out.

Whatever the Rangers do, Bonnen — who has only had the speaker’s job since January — has House members looking in their rearview mirrors and trying to decide if they chose the right leader. Calling lawmakers back to town to work on something as contentious as arms and safety regulation is risky and often unproductive, especially on the threshold of an intense election season. Compounding that with an undercurrent of legislative in-fighting and insurrection seems downright treacherous.

Especially if your strength is politics, and not policy.

Author: ROSS RAMSEY – The Texas Tribune

More than football: Franklin, Odessa Permian teams to show act of support in wake of tragedies

The match between the Franklin Cougars and Permian Panthers tonight at Odessa’s Ratliff Stadium will be about much more than just football.

In the wake of the tragedies that struck both communities recently, the two teams plan to unite on the field before kickoff to show support for each other and demonstrate the strength of the two cities coming together during difficult times.

Franklin players on Wednesday rolled out a sign they will present to the Permian team and, one by one signed their name and a message of love and support.  The sign reads “Odessa and El Paso Strong.”

Almost simultaneously, but some 280 miles east, players at Permian — which is still recovering from a mass shooting from last weekend — signed a similar sign they plan to present to El Paso. El Paso was the site of a mass shooting on Aug. 3.

“It’s important that we come together as a community and that they know they aren’t alone,” said senior Ethan Bustillos. “There’s help from other communities and cities to recover.”

The idea for the banner exchange came from an act of support the Franklin team received from the Rio Rancho Cleveland team the Cougars faced last week. At that game, Cleveland players presented a signed banner that read “El Paso Strong” to Franklin captain Andrew Bristol.

“It was kind of a shocker. We’re playing football, which can be a bad blood sport, and it brought more of a bigger picture in my eye. Football is a community … everyone is a part of it,” Bristol said.

“Giving Odessa the banner is going to be meaningful to me because I was the one receiving one last week,” he added. “We know what the Odessa community is going through and we offer our condolences. Hopefully, they hang it as we hung ours from the Cleveland Storm.”

Like Bristol, his teammates were touched by the presentation of the banner. It hangs in the stadium as a reminder that kindness lives on and unites communities.

“It means the world that we can do this for them because when the shooting happened here in El Paso, it brought the community together,” said Franklin corner Michael Buraczyk. “I hope it brings their community together in the same way.”

Quarterback Danny Walther echoed the sentiment of his teammates.

“Last week when we received the banner from Cleveland, it meant a lot to us and we want to do the same for Odessa. We are there to support them.”

Read more about the Franklin v. Permian game from the Associated Press here.










Story and photos by Reneé De Santos – EPISD

Texas House Democrats ask Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session after two mass shootings

Democrats in the Texas House are calling on Gov. Greg Abbott to convene a special legislative session to address gun violence — a move designed to place even more pressure on the state’s top GOP official to act in the wake of two deadly mass shootings just weeks apart.

A letter to Abbott was delivered Wednesday morning, hours before the House Democratic Caucus hosted five news conferences across the state to discuss “protecting Texans from gun violence.” The letter, which also included several gun-related legislative proposals, was signed by 61 of the 66 members in the caucus.

“Members of the House Democratic Caucus, for several sessions now, have proposed dozens of specific bills aimed at changing the status quo by making Texans safer through common-sense gun and public safety legislation,” the letter reads.

The caucus requested Abbott include issues such as “closing the background check loopholes” and “banning the sale of high-capacity magazines” in a special session agenda, along with “enacting extreme risk protective order laws and closing existing loopholes in current protective order laws,” “limiting the open carry of certain semi-automatic long guns” and “requiring stolen guns be reported to law enforcement.”

The Legislature does not convene again until 2021; Abbott has the sole authority to call both chambers back to the Capitol before then.

Democrats said Wednesday that waiting another year and a half to address gun violence in the state will endanger Texans.

“This is the kind of thing our constituents are telling us they want us to tackle, and they want us to tackle it now,” state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said. “We should not sacrifice any more Texas lives simply to accommodate a legislative calendar.”

On top of that, the next session will be bogged down with fights over redistricting, further polarizing the state and reducing the chance for consensus on gun safety legislation, Howard said.

During the press conference, however, a spokesperson for Abbott said released a statement that the governor “made clear in Odessa that all strategies are on the table that will lead to laws that make Texans safer” — but added that did not “include a helter skelter approach that hastily calls for perfunctory votes that divide legislators along party lines.”

“Instead, the Governor seeks consensus rather than division,” Abbott’s spokesperson said in a statement. “The Democrats who are part of today’s partisan pitch can be part of the bi-partisan legislative process announced yesterday that is geared toward achieving real solutions, or they can be part of politics as usual that will accomplish nothing. Legislating on tough issues is hard and takes time. If Democrats really want to change the law, they need to stop talking to cameras and start talking to colleagues in the Capitol to reach consensus.”

Howard countered the statement from Abbott’s office, however, and said as governor and a major leader among Republicans Abbott could build the consensus necessary to get gun safety legislation through both chambers and to his desk.

Over Labor Day weekend, a gunman on a rampage through Odessa and Midland killed seven people and injured 22 others. The tragedy there happened four weeks after a deadly shooting in El Paso that left 22 dead and more than two dozen wounded. The representative who led Wednesday morning’s Democratic press conference, Celia Israel of Austin, said she had been to the El Paso Walmart where the shooting occurred just a week before, and that her family could have easily been caught up in it.

“Our constituents deserve to know the Texas Legislature hears them,” Israel said. “We have security all around us [at the Capitol]” but are “painfully aware” of the danger for many Texans around the state as their go about their daily lives.

As Democrats have repeatedly urged Abbott to call a special session on the matter, the governor — along with other GOP leaders — have formed various entities to help explore long-term responses. After the El Paso shooting, Abbott assembled the Domestic Terrorism Task Force and the Texas Safety Commission.

Abbott also tweeted Monday night that he was considering a proposal to expedite executions of mass shooters. Democrats at the Wednesday press conference declined to comment on the proposal.

And on Tuesday, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced they had formed interim select committees to study “mass violence prevention and community safety.” The committees, the two GOP leaders said, will be tasked with studying and eventually recommending legislative solutions.

Bonnen on Wednesday announced the 13 House members who will serve on the select committee and directed the newly-formed panel to begin studying an array of issues related to gun violence and prevention, such as evaluating “options for strengthening enforcement measures for current laws that prevent the transfer of firearms to felons and other persons prohibited by current law from possessing firearms” and considering “current protocols and extreme risk indicators used to identify potential threats.”


Emergence’s Community Recovery Center Therapists prepare for retraumatized residents following Midland/Odessa Shooting

Officials with Emergence Health Network (EHN), are again preparing for local residents who may have been retraumatized by news and coverage of the mass shooting in Midland/Odessa.

EHN, operators of the Community Recovery Center specifically developed to address the mental health care needs of residents in the borderland region following the event on August 3, 2019, stand ready to help once again.

“Our EHN mental health professionals are uniquely qualified to provide care to those affected by traumatic experiences, so as we mark the month anniversary of this heartbreaking incident and hear news of the most recent shooting in Midland/Odessa we know many challenging emotions can resurface or individuals can experience relived trauma,” said Kristi Daugherty, Emergence Health Network, CEO.

“We also know there could be delayed trauma, so as the Local Mental Health Authority EHN is prepared for the long haul.  We have the services and staff in place to help our community heal and the Community Recovery Center is an added resource.”

“Easy access to counseling is vital right now so services offered at the Community Recovery Center are free of charge and if an individual doesn’t want to make an appointment, he or she can just walk in.  We also encourage our community to continue to utilize the Crisis Hotline where they can speak to one of our mental health professionals 24/7,” said Rene Hurtado, EHN Chief of Staff.

Community Recovery Center

8730 Boeing Drive, El Paso, TX

Monday – Friday

9am – 6 pm

To schedule an appointment call: 915-242-0555

EHN Crisis Hotline and Support


Mass shooting in Midland-Odessa: Five dead, 21 wounded, shooter killed

At least five people were killed and 21 others were injured in shootings near Midland and Odessa Saturday, police confirmed. The alleged shooter was shot and killed at Cinergy Cinemas in Odessa.

The suspect was a white man in his mid-30s. In a news conference Saturday afternoon, Chief Michael Gerke of the Odessa Police Department said the shooting began around 3 p.m. after a traffic stop. When a trooper tried to pull over the gunman, he shot the trooper who pulled him over and began shooting people at random, Gerke said.

The shooter eventually ditched his car, hijacked a U.S. Postal Service vehicle and continued to open fire, Gerke said. Two law enforcement officers were injured.

“Please understand this is not just an Odessa Police Department, Midland Police Department and Department of Public Safety thing,” Gerke said during a press conference. “This was a joint effort by a multiple of departments to find this animal and bring him to justice.”

Gerke said reports of a second gunman were unconfirmed. He said while officials “believe we have the threat contained … I can’t be 1,000 percent sure of that.”

Midland Mayor Jerry Morales told the New York Times that the shooter targeted Interstate 20 and Highway 191. During the shooting, the Texas Department of Public Safety encouraged people in Midland, Odessa and Big Spring to remain indoors.

At a press conference from Medical Center Hospital in Odessa, CEO Russell Tippin said they had 14 victims in the hospital. Grief counseling is being provided and a team of nurses is reuniting families in a designated area, he said. Tippin said the hospital was “stable and secure” and that all the locations were locked down for the safety of the staff and victims.

“We have 14 victims in the hospital. Not ready to discuss ages,” Tippin said. “Pray for the victims. If you hear my voice, hug your families.”

A DPS official told MSNBC that all shootings, or reports of shootings, took place outside of buildings. According to officials, the shooting started in Midland and then proceeded to Odessa.

Prior to the suspect’s death, Midland police posted a warning on the department’s Facebook page: “A subject (possibly 2) is currently driving around Odessa shooting at random people. At this time there are multiple gunshot victims. The suspect just hijacked a U.S. mail carrier truck and was last seen in the area of 38th and Walnut. Everyone is encouraged to get off the road and use extreme caution! All law enforcement is currently searching for the suspect and more information will be released as soon as it becomes available.”

In a tweet, state Rep. Brooks Landgraf, R-Odessa, encouraged his constituents to stay in their homes until the situation was resolved.

“The tragic situation unfolding in Odessa is serious,” he said. “I’ve been in contact with DPS officials, the Speaker and the Governor, and we are working to help in any way possible. In the meantime, please pray for the victims.”

Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement that he will be traveling to Odessa on Sunday.

“The First Lady and I are heartbroken over this senseless and cowardly attack, and we offer our unwavering support to the victims, their families, and all the people of Midland and Odessa,” Abbott said. “I thank the first responders who have acted swiftly and admirably under pressure, and I want to remind all Texans that we will not allow the Lone Star State to be overrun by hatred and violence. We will unite, as Texans always do, to respond to this tragedy.”

Both Texans in the presidential race, Julián Castro and Beto O’Rourke, also weighed in.

“Heartbreaking news out of Odessa and Midland, Texas as police search for an active shooter at-large,” Castro tweeted. “Stay indoors and monitor news alerts and safety protocols.”

“Our hearts are with Midland, Odessa, and everyone in West Texas who has to endure this again,” O’Rourke said. “More information is forthcoming, but here’s what we know: We need to end this epidemic.”

President Donald Trump tweeted that he had been briefed by Attorney General Barr about the shootings and the “FBI and Law Enforcement is fully engaged.”

News of the West Texas shooting comes exactly four weeks after a deadly shooting at an El Paso Walmart that left 22 dead and more than two dozen wounded. The gunman in that shooting was arrested and charged with capital murder.

Disclosure: Walmart has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Read related Tribune coverage

Author: ALEX SAMUELS – The Texas Tribune

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