Predicting Active Shooter Events with Risk Terrain Modeling

Too many Americans die each year in active shooter events—and almost all active shooter events occur in somebody’s workplace, even if the intended victims are not employees. It’s a difficult risk to address, because active shooter events are largely random. Aren’t they? It would be difficult to predict with any certainty where one could occur. Wouldn’t it?

Angry Employee with Gun

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Maybe not.

A recently developed law enforcement tool, risk terrain mapping, may be able to predict, at least to some degree, what workplaces are more likely to experience an active shooter event.

Predicting Violence

Traditional methods of preventing and controlling active shooter situations tend to focus on site security and on identifying personal risk factors for violence. Risk terrain mapping takes a different approach. Similar to the practice of “hot-spot mapping,” in which law enforcement agencies plot crimes and other indicators on detailed local maps to identify “hot spots” where crimes frequently take place.

Hot-spot mapping works well for crimes that occur frequently in the same area, like robberies; it is less useful for predicting infrequent crimes like active shooter events. Oddly, the research has shown that hot-spot mapping may actually predict locations where active shooter events are less likely; shooters seem to avoid identified criminal “hot spots,” either out of a perception that increased police presence or security measures are likely to be present in those areas or because they deliberately choose areas that people think of as safe in order to maximize the suffering they inflict.

Risk Factors

Risk terrain mapping predicts crime by plotting location risk factors on a map, much the same way that hot-spot modeling plots arrests and other incidents on a map. The risk factors used in risk terrain mapping include:

  • Nonresidential location density. Active shooters generally target locations that are significant sources of stress for them—most of the time, that means either the workplace or a school. In addition, shooters usually want to inflict as much suffering as possible before they die, so they will choose locations with a higher population density that offer convenient secondary targets.
  • Location type. Businesses and schools are higher risk locations; therefore, they are weighted more heavily than other locations on a risk terrain map. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), 70% of active shooter events occur in either schools or businesses—places that, according to the American Psychological Association, are major sources of stress for 70% of people.
  • Distance from police stations. Most active shooters are suicidal. Some take their own lives; others seem incapable of suicide and simply keep shooting until they are killed by police. Distance from police stations has predictive value in anticipating active shooter situations.

Minimizing the Damage

Another factor with predictive value for active shooter situations is the “copycat” factor; active shooter events with three or more casualties tend to inspire copycats. For this reason, stopping the shooter with minimal casualties is important because it can reduce the likelihood of such violence in other places. If you take steps to better protect your workplace against active shooters, you reduce not only your risk but others’ risk as well.


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