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A former FBI profiler explains how 'leakage' can warn of a mass shooting


There were warning signs. That is something you often hear in the aftermath of mass shootings, and it's something we heard after the recent deadly shooting in Lewiston, Maine. Documents released earlier this week revealed that law enforcement received multiple reports in recent months of the shooter's paranoia and deteriorating mental health. At least one person who knew the shooter even expressed concerns that he might, quote, "snap and commit a mass shooting." This phenomenon of a mass shooter talking about or hinting about the act before they do it is known as leakage, and it's common - very common. In fact, it's been studied since the 1990s.

Mary Ellen O'Toole is a former FBI profiler. She coined the term leakage and joins us now to talk about it. Welcome.

MARY ELLEN O'TOOLE: Thank you very much for having me.

SUMMERS: So you came up with the word leakage. Explain it to us. What exactly is it? Does that include any talk of violence?

O'TOOLE: In general, it does. We noted this phenomenon back in 1999, when we were doing research in the FBI on mass shootings. And this was prior to Columbine. And then, of course, Columbine had evidence of leakage as well. But leakage basically is the intentional or the unintentional revelation by the possible shooter that they intend to carry out an act of violence. And the leakage can come in several different forms. It can be words, and today it can be postings on social media. It can be drawings. Back in 1999, we said, look for diary entries, essays, poems, letters, songs - anything where the shooter could express their intentions to carry out an act of violence.

SUMMERS: I mean, I'm just thinking back here. The Columbine shooting, of course, was in 1999. And just since then, we've had more mass shootings in this country than one could begin to count. Is leakage still just as common? Is it still a prevalent pattern?

O'TOOLE: It really is. And it's one of the most common forms of what we call red-flag or warning behaviors - is this - sometimes it's a cry for help. But what I've seen that's different following Columbine is that it's a way for the shooter to almost brag ahead of time about what they're going to do. Columbine was really somewhat of a watershed event - that this leakage was now done to brag or to get attention or to highlight how strong and powerful the shooter was and what they were going to be able to do. So the motivation behind it seems to have taken on a change, but it's still prevalent in these cases.

SUMMERS: We know now that the shooter in Lewiston, Maine, was known to police. In fact, law enforcement officials tried to reach out to him after his army unit asked the county sheriff's office to conduct a welfare check because he was, quote, "making threats to shoot up a facility." Generally speaking, though, how trained are law enforcement when it comes to leakage? Did Maine law enforcement take the steps that you might have expected in a case like this one?

O'TOOLE: They did. And I think, over the last 20-plus years, law enforcement has become very aware of what leakage is and that it occurs in probably the vast majority of cases. Leakage is the first look into the possibility that someone is going to act out violently. Then you start building the case. Are there other warning behaviors besides the leakage? Are they taking steps to carry out what they just said that they were going to do? So the leakage is a - the first look into that person's ability and plan to carry out the shooting.

SUMMERS: If the average person hears someone making these types of statements or picks up on hints, say, on social media or elsewhere, do you have any advice for what we should do about it?

O'TOOLE: Do not - to the point where I just want to beg people - do not disregard it. Do not disregard it. You may just be seeing the very tip of the iceberg. And oftentimes that's the case. You see the tip of the iceberg, and you say to yourself, I'm sure they didn't mean that. This is not a violent person. I'm sure it's just - they're - it's a matter of frustration. Do not do that. Report it to someone who does have the ability to do records check - to look into the person's background, maybe to sit down and interview the person.

SUMMERS: That's Mary Ellen O'Toole. She is a former FBI profiler who coined the term leakage in mass shootings. Thank you so much.

O'TOOLE: My pleasure. Thank you.


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Kai McNamee
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Kathryn Fox
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.