Earlier this week, the Michigan State Senate took up a new bill, the Public Threat Alert System Act, that would allow state police to tap into emergency alert systems and send radio, television, and text messages to the public about "clear, persistent, ongoing, and random threats."
Think mass shootings, shooting sprees, and terrorist attacks.
Private companies have long employed internal alert systems for such tragedies, and since 2008, national law has required federally-funded colleges to send email and text warnings when attacks occur on campus. But the Michigan bill appears to be the first concrete effort to implement a dedicated, statewide alert system for shootings that would be as pervasive as, say, emergency weather alerts. Amid what is essentially a mass shooting epidemic, this raises the question of whether such systems could—or should—one day become an inescapable part of American life.
Already passed by the State House in a 106-2 vote on May 10, the bill has received widespread and bipartisan support from lawmakers and the public as a cheap and easy step to help protect citizen bystanders. The bill's path through the legislature seems smooth enough that one of its supporters expects it should clear the Senate before the end of the summer. Assuming embattled Governor Rick Snyder signs on, the system could go online as soon as this fall. But despite near-universal local acclaim, some outside observers like James Alan Fox, an expert on the dynamics of active and mass shootings at Northeastern University, see the Public Threat Alert System Act as no more than feel-good measure that will accomplish little. In fact, Fox suspects it could do more harm than good.
"It's a knee-jerk over-response to a low-likelihood event," Fox tells VICE. "The response will create unnecessary havoc."
The Public Threat Alert System Act is most directly a response to a mass shooting spree in the state this February, when cops say Uber driver Jason Brian Dalton's drove around the greater Kalamazoo area for nearly seven hours firing randomly at people with a 9mm semiautomatic handgun, ultimately killing six and injuring two. In the days immediately following the attack, stories about locals out on the streets who didn't find out about the shootings for hours and about the failure of Western Michigan University (two miles away from the shooter's route at various times) to notify students with its own system helped trigger calls by local media outlets and interest groups for a new alert.
On March 8, Brandt Iden, a Republican state representative from Oshtemo, one of the townships Dalton terrorized, introduced House Bill 5442, the embryo of the current legislation.
"I was on Stadium Drive getting gas at about the same time that the shooter would have been traveling down [that road]," local media outlet WEMU recently quoted the state lawmaker as saying, in a reflection of what he believes was a common experience of dangerous ignorance. "I would have started to pay a lot more attention had I gotten this notification on my cell phone that said, 'Brandt, be alert.'"
Iden subsequently collaborated with Jon Hoadley, a Democratic state representative who had his own (nearly identical) bill already in the works—their unwittingly parallel efforts a testament to the local appetite for change. The duo enjoyed the support of the Kalamazoo County Sheriff, local residents, and family members of victims in Dalton's rampage. As it stands now, their bill requires local cops who hear about an active-shooter to contact the State Police, who would then verify that the incident meets criteria of their own determination before notifying broadcasters and utilizing telecom channels to send out media alerts and distribute text notifications to all wireless phones in a certain geographic area. (VICE reached out to the Michigan State Police to see if they have devised any of the specific criteria for what would trigger a notification, but had yet to receive a response as of publication.) Local broadcasters have pointed out they technically won't be required to distribute the message, but given the optics of throwing a fit over warning people about a mass shooting, we can expect them to participate.
Representative Iden has compared the system to America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response (AMBER) Alerts—which if nothing else offers some conceptual and infrastructural precedent for this new system.
The Michigan bill more directly piggybacks on the local infrastructure put in place late last year after the state created a Blue Alert program. Launched in 2008 in Florida and now active in 25 states (including Michigan), Blue Alerts send out information, usually by voluntary radio and television broadcasts, about suspects who've killed or injured law enforcement officers but remain at large. In Michigan, the Alert was adopted after outcry that if it'd been enacted earlier, authorities may have more quickly brought the killer of State Trooper Paul Butterflied, gunned down in Mason County in 2013, to justice. The state legislature determined that the program would cost about $20,000 upfront and $300 a month to maintain, which seemed OK despite budget woes and austerity measures.
When it comes to the new active shooter system, lawmakers have determined it could be incorporated into the of the Blue Alert system's infrastructure with "nominal fiscal impact."
For his part, Fox suspects that the Michigan law, when it passes, won't immediately trigger other states to follow suit. But if it seems to be working in Michigan, or if there are more random mass shootings with hours of lag time between outset and neutralization of the shooter(s) nationwide, it could be the start of a trend.
Still, this mass shooter alert system doesn't excite Fox, who notes that most active shooter situations are geographically contained and brief—enough so that the sound of gunfire is usually the fastest and best alert for anyone in actual danger to seek shelter. By the time there's enough good information to issue a solid alert, Fox says, the incident is often over. And he maintains that there are plenty of ways—mostly by creating undue fear with premature or overly broad warnings—a successfully-triggered alert can go wrong.
Even if the implicit costs of the alert are low, it's hard to argue with Fox that these systems will only provide protection in cases similar to the Kalamazoo mass shooting—a rare subset of an all-too-common form of gun violence. And Americans as a society may well be too eager to grab on to easy, low-cost, high-profile, program to address mass shootings and the threats they pose as a whole—if only to feel like they're doing something to improve security. Gun control advocates, for instance, may see warning systems as a distraction from efforts to stop machines of death from proliferating in their communities in the first place. But given the sheer volume of mass gun violence plaguing the country, that one state is using its own localized nightmare to experiment with a better response mechanism is not only understandable, but seemingly inevitable.
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