The Trump administration is considering a proposal that could see a federal agency monitoring the phones and other devices of known mentally ill people in an effort to predict who might perpetrate a mass shooting.
According to The Washington Post, the proposal originated with former NBC Chairman and long-time friend of the president Bob Wright, who has briefed top officials within the administration.
The proposal hinges on the creation of a new research agency called HARPA — similar to the military’s DARPA — that would “come up with out-of-the-box ways to tackle health problems.”
Wright’s advisers put together a three-page proposal, called SAFEHOME for Stopping Aberrant Fatal Events by Helping Overcome Mental Extremes, at the White House’s request following mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, last month.
Republicans, including President Donald Trump, have worked hard to push the narrative that mass shootings are an issue of mental illness rather than the prevalence of guns in the country.
Marisa Randazzo, former chief research psychologist for the U.S. Secret Service, told The Post that while it would be nice to identify individuals who pose a threat before they act, there are “so many things about this idea of predicting violence that doesn’t make sense.”
Such a move would obviously raise privacy concerns, she said, but even further, such a program would almost certainly result in countless false positives, saying it “would likely flag tens, or hundreds of thousands, more possible suspects than actual shooters.”
But the primary flaw with something like HARPA, Randazzo said, is the premise that mental illness is linked to violence: “Everything we know from research tells us it’s a weak link at best,” she said.
Still, the concept has garnered bipartisan support in Washington and beyond. The Post noted that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden mentioned HARPA on the campaign trail in Iowa last month.
“Those who have been in the military know there’s an outfit called DARPA,” he said. “It’s the thing that allows the military to do advanced research on everything from stealth technology and the Internet and all those other things … We should be doing the same thing with health care.”
Biden suggested such an agency could help solve health issues like Alzheimer’s disease and obesity.
However, others — like Stephen Hart, a clinical forensic psychologist and researcher on violence risk assessment — believe predicting who will or will not one day turn violent is a fool’s errand.
“The irony is that there are low-tech solutions that already exist for some of these problems that we simply aren’t funding or deploying enough,” he said, pointing to research and policies that address the sheer number of guns in the U.S., as well as threat assessments, “which emphasizes preventing violence by identifying and addressing the problems in people flagged by fellow students or co-workers.”
The Post also noted a 2012 report commissioned by the Pentagon which found that all the technology currently available that could possibly help predict future violence is essentially useless: “The study’s panel devoted an entire appendix to dispelling the notion, entitled “Prediction: Why It Won’t Work.” Instead, it recommended approaches such as threat assessment.”
The report concluded that prevention, rather than prediction, is the way forward.