UCLA shooting pushes panic button:

James Alan Fox 8:53 p.m. EST
June 2, 2015

Broad 'active shooter' warnings fuel hysteria more than boost safety.

Wednesday's murder-suicide at UCLA, in which an esteemed professor was fatally shot inside his office by a former student, was absolutely tragic. But inaccurately calling it an active shooter situation only added to the panic on campus and off.

The incident ended quickly, even before the citywide alert. Yet the state of alarm lasted for hours in large part because of the active shooter reference. Fear of this modern day boogeyman dressed menacingly in black clothing and armed with an assault weapon is well out of proportion with the risk, prompting many ill-conceived over-responses.

The fear effect is certainly in play within the Michigan Legislature after February's shooting spree by an Uber driver in Kalamazoo. A bill to establish a statewide active shooter alert system sailed through the House chamber last month by an overwhelming 106-2 vote. Given the mood in the Michigan Senate and comments made by Gov. Rick Snyder, the proposal should soon become law.

Patterned after the Amber Alert system for rescuing kidnapped children, HB 5442 calls for the state police to relay reports of an active shooter over the TV and radio emergency broadcast system. Notifications would also be sent to mobile devices.

Although the proposals are well meaning, the potential for creating panic is real. "I am concerned that the reporting systems can give a false sense of security and have little meaningful impact to the public," said Republican Rep. Martin Howrylak, one of the two who opposed the measure. "There is also the possibility of unnecessarily creating public hysteria."

Active shooter events are quite different from approaching storms and kidnappings, in which widely broadcast alerts can help save lives.

Unlike the unpredictable movements of a kidnapper, the vast majority of active shooters operate in a small and well-defined area. According to an FBI study, more than 80% of the active shooters remain in a single location. Thus, nearly every Michigander receiving an alert would be safely out of harm's way, although they could helplessly fear for the safety of a loved one believed to be in the vicinity of the attack.

Also unlike a kidnapping, most active shooter events are over quickly, either by the gunman's suicide or by third-party intervention. According to FBI data, 40% of active shooter events are resolved within two minutes, and nearly 60% within five minutes. By the time the Michigan police receive a report of a possible active shooter, determine it to meet established criteria and then launch the alert, the danger would likely have passed. But not the anxiety of residents until they receive an "all clear" signal.

Given the fast-changing nature of these situations, the pressure to move quickly in getting the word out can result in incomplete information or false alarms. This has happened on many occasions with college campus notification systems, which have been installed far and wide since the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.

In September 2007, public safety officials at St. John's University were prompt in texting students and staff about a man wearing a Fred Flintstone mask and roaming around campus with a rifle. In the rush to trigger the alert, they failed to indicate which campus was affected. The incident occurred on the main campus in Queens, yet people at the satellite campuses in Manhattan and Staten Island needlessly ran for cover.

In March 2008, the University of Iowa community received a "Hawk Alert" by email, phone calls and text messages about an active shooter event in Iowa City, causing much concern and confusion. As it happened, the gunman was miles away on the other side of town, not even close to endangering the campus.

In August 2011, three teenagers called the Virginia Tech police about a man carrying what appeared to be a gun covered by a cloth. With memories of the horror of 2007 still fresh, the police were quick to send out this alert: "Person with a gun reported near Dietrick. Stay inside. Secure doors. Emergency personnel responding. Call 911 for help." Fortunately, the witnesses were mistaken.

Of course, these mishaps and miscues should not dissuade us from being vigilant. Without question, it is critical that everyone within range of an active shooter be warned of the threat. But for those caught in such dire situations, the very best alert system is not some late arriving text message but the immediate sound of gunfire.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. He is co-author of Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder.