Predicting the next mass shooter: ‘I would say it’s impossible’

In the two deadliest shootings in the U.S. this year, the accused gunman had displayed warning signs before his killing spree.

Nikolas Cruz demonstrated an obsession with guns and was the subject of more than a dozen police visits at home before he allegedly went on a February shooting rampage that left 17 dead at his former high school in Parkland, Florida.

Ian David Long, who authorities say burst into the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, California, late Wednesday night and gunned down 12 people before apparently taking his own life, was found to be “acting a little irrationally’’ when police were summoned to his house in April.

Yet, Cruz and Long were both deemed by officials not to be a danger to themselves or others, and they were neither committed for treatment nor forbidden from possessing weapons.

Amid the grief over yet another mass shooting, there’s also a sense of frustration over the failure to pick up on those cues.

Mental health experts say that, in the absence of expressed credible threats, predicting violent behavior presents a significant challenge.

“The ability to identify an individual’s first violent act is extraordinarily difficult – I would say it’s impossible,’’ said Steven Hoge, a forensic psychiatrist and clinical professor at Columbia University. “Because what mental health professionals bring to the table is the ability to identify risks and triggers to past violent acts and to try to figure out how to mitigate or avoid those incidents in the future.’’

Hoge warned against the common perception that the mental health system should identify dangerous people and get them off the streets. Even though they can begin the process of involuntary commitment when they determine someone to be dangerous, he said, the role of mental health professionals is to provide care.

“Psychiatrists exist in this world to treat people for mental illness,’’ he said. “If there are measures that need to be taken because there are concerns about future violence, that’s in the purview of the police.’’

Ventura County Sheriff deputies had mental health specialists evaluate Long when they were called to his house in April. They did not pursue further action.

San Diego-based Clark Clipson, a forensic psychologist since 1991, said making those assessments in the field can be especially difficult.

Clipson usually evaluates persons who have been charged or convicted of a crime, so he has police reports, criminal histories, psychological test results and other data on which to base his conclusions. That information typically is not available in field calls.

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