Team Approach to Keeping Potential Attackers Off ‘Path to Violence’

Preventing violent acts together.

Team Approach to Keeping Potential Attackers Off ‘Path to Violence’

San Antonio, Texas – The Behavioral Threat Assessment Group, or BTAG, meets three times a week at the Southwest Texas Fusion Center, a high-tech intelligence hub inside San Antonio’s Public Safety Headquarters. When a Texas teenager made vague threats on social media in 2022 glorifying the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas— where a young man killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School just months earlier— tips started to come in.

A police department investigator in Texas quickly developed a picture of the subject: a 19-year-old man who idolized the Uvalde offender, posted pictures of himself with weapons, and professed a desire to die in a shootout with police. A search of his home in late 2022 found no weapons. And he told the investigator, who works on a task force with the FBI’s San Antonio Field Office, that he had no plans to carry out a school shooting. But the incident became a focus of a team of experts who continually assess known and emerging threats in the region.

Behavioral Threat Assessment Group

The Behavioral Threat Assessment Group, or BTAG, meets three times a week at the Southwest Texas Fusion Center, a high-tech intelligence hub inside San Antonio’s Public Safety Headquarters. There, assembled around a large conference table, police detectives, fire investigators, mental health experts, federal agents, and others discuss and evaluate cases they believe could— if ignored— devolve into acts of mass violence. Drawing on their unique areas of expertise, team members collectively present and examine cases and debate how to proceed. After assessing their level of concern about a specific case, the team develops and implements strategies designed to manage the concern.

“Everything about threat assessment and building a management plan for somebody is about having all the pieces of the puzzle,” said Josh Thomas, a San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) detective who coordinates the BTAG meetings every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The puzzle pieces are not just experts at the table but also the unique access they each have to their organizations’ current records and data. That could include court dates, behavioral assessments, criminal records, medical calls, and more.

This multiagency approach also allows the team to incorporate resources available through each partner organization to divert subjects off a path to violence. “Being able to get that right then and there is absolutely critical to what we do,” Thomas said.

Foundation and Model

The group’s threat assessment approach is based in large part on a model developed by the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), which has studied and produced research on mass shootings and similar acts of targeted violence and identified behaviors that often precede mass attacks. BAU is part of the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group (CIRG), which includes the Behavioral Threat Assessment Center (BTAC), a multi-agency federal task force focused on preventing terrorism and targeted violence through behaviorally based support, training, and research.

In 2018, BTAC established the nationwide Threat Assessment and Threat Management Initiative, which later helped lay the foundation for BTAG in San Antonio. In the case of the Texas man who idolized the Uvalde offender, no actionable crime had been committed when he was first interviewed. But the young man agreed to a mental health assessment and was admitted for treatment.

Central Tenet

Providing information on mental health resources— and helping those in need get access to the appropriate resources— is a central tenet of the San Antonio Police Department. When concerns involve a possible mental health component— about half of BTAG cases— sworn officers from SAPD’s Mental Health Unit are there to deliver needed resources.

“Our goal is to connect people on the mental health side to services because a lot of them don’t know how to get those services,” said Sandi Zimmerman, an SAPD officer. “My goal every day is to get them connected.” Indeed, BTAG’s goal isn’t to arrest every individual who presents a potential threat but to understand where— and if— they might be on the so-called pathway to violence. The term is a reference to the behavioral arc that perpetrators of mass violence generally follow from thinking about harming others to planning and attacking.

Managing Cases

At any given time, the BTAG in San Antonio is managing hundreds of cases that are somewhere on that spectrum. “It’s become a gold-standard for community-led threat assessment teams,” said Special Agent Sam Ukeiley, an FBI threat management coordinator in the San Antonio Field Office. A former profiler in BAU, Ukeiley helped an earlier iteration of BTAG formalize their process in 2019 and integrate BAU’s threat assessment and threat management approach.

SAPD manages the program and has become a model for law enforcement agencies around the country that are considering something similar. “You make sure you’re addressing all the threats in an accountable and defensible manner, so nobody falls through the cracks at a minimum,” Ukeiley said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Recent Incident and Response

It was, in part, that accountability model that alerted the BTAG to new concerning behaviors by the Laredo, Texas, man in late 2022. After being released from treatment, he posted a video clip on social media of himself driving past Robb Elementary, site of the mass shooting, and an image of a hand holding a rifle magazine. On December 11, 2022, the man tried to buy a shotgun in San Antonio. When his application was delayed because he provided an incorrect home address, the FBI notified the local investigator, who arrested him on a state charge of making terroristic threats related to the Uvalde school shooting.

The man was sentenced to jail, followed by a three-year period of supervised release. Post-release conditions will provide a structured reentry to society and enhance law enforcement’s options to monitor for concerning changes in behavior. In a statement at sentencing, the prosecutor praised the effort that led up to the young man’s arrest and detention.

Sgt. Matthew Porter, supervisor of BTAG, said not every reported threat requires the team’s attention, but he would rather people err on the side of caution. “I would rather someone report something to us that’s not beneficial, rather than the alternative,” he said.

Strong Partnerships

On a recent Monday morning, Josh Thomas convened the BTAG meeting with about 20 team members seated around the “threat table” with laptops open. Several others dialed in remotely. “We have two new ones for consideration today,” he said. He briefed the new cases and several ongoing cases and then opened it up for discussion. For more than an hour, police, mental health providers, arson investigators, and SAPD’s in-house psychologist weighed in.

When someone raised a question, someone else had the answer— if not immediately, then at their fingertips. “It’s amazing being able to get the information real-time so that we can make decisions real-time,” Thomas said. Sgt. Porter, the BTAG supervisor, said that’s the beauty of having strong relationships in place and having everybody at the table invested in seeing cases get resolved before they escalate.

“When you have so many people at the table it allows for new ideas to be presented because someone may see something from a different perspective. And that’s really beneficial,” Porter said. “It’s a lot of moving parts but everyone moves in the same direction. It’s solid. We have a really solid foundation.”

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