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What to Make of the Confusion Surrounding the San Bernardino Shooting

As I write this it is Wednesday just past 10 p.m. on the west coast, and information on Wednesday’s shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., is far from complete. Perhaps like you, I’m noting the apparent incongruities in the media reporting of the incident. Reports that the two suspects killed in a gunfight with police were Muslims of course arouses suspicions that the shooting was an act of Islamic terrorism, something an FBI assistant director was unwilling to rule out. And maybe it was, but the location where the crime occurred, a holiday gathering for employees of the San Bernardino County Health Department, seems an unlikely target for international terrorism. One suspect was an employee of that department, suggesting a more prosaic motive for the violence, but if it was a case of a disgruntled employee seeking revenge on coworkers, how to explain the multiple suspects and the apparent level of planning?

These questions will soon be answered, perhaps by the time this is posted. In the meantime, here are some things for readers to consider as the investigation unfolds:

How many shooters were there? Two suspects are dead, but there are still reports of a third suspect, one who has either been detained or remains at large. I’m reminded of the 1997 shootout in North Hollywood, Calif., in which two heavily armed bank robbers engaged in an extended gun battle with LAPD officers. One suspect took his own life after being wounded, the other died shortly thereafter after being shot in a furious, close-range firefight with SWAT officers.  Officers spent several hours searching the surrounding neighborhood for a third suspect, though it was later determined none such had existed. I suspect this will be the case in San Bernardino as well.

Which illustrates something that commonly occurs in rapidly developing situations such as occurred on Wednesday. Information comes into police at a rapid pace and there is little opportunity to analyze it before passing it along to responding police officers. Multiple witnesses might describe a single suspect differently, leading to the belief that more than one suspect is involved. And as information is passed among police officers, it can be very much like a frantic game of “telephone.” Rumors and confirmed reports run together and are given equal weight in the minds of those who lack the time and resources to differentiate them.

This can be especially true when, as was the case in San Bernardino, multiple police agencies respond to an incident. These agencies might employ different terminology on the radio, or indeed officers on the scene might be unable to communicate by radio because their departments operate on different radio frequencies. Add to this the many fire departments and other agencies that respond, all of which receive and disseminate information rapidly, and you have the potential for a confused and ineffective response.

That said, it appears that the police and sheriff’s departments involved in the incident did a commendable job. The two suspects were identified and located within hours of the shooting, and they were prevented from harming anyone else. That they were both killed was the consequence of their own choices, but I suppose it’s just a matter of time before we hear someone say the police should have been able to capture them alive.

As the situation evolves from a tactical incident to one of investigation and evidence collection, it’s important to maintain continuity and consistency. The FBI is sending evidence-collection teams, though as of this writing there is no clear evidence that a federal crime has been committed. Evidence is scattered over a wide area, including the original crime scene, the scene of the shootout, and the house where the dead suspects lived. The methods used by the FBI and the various police agencies involved to identify and collect evidence are surely different, and the criminal case that might be brought against any possible surviving suspects can be jeopardized if there are gaps or errors in the evidence’s analysis or chain of custody. Before a single shell casing is picked up, before a single photograph is taken, the decision should be made as to which agency is responsible for processing the crime scenes. The old saw about too many cooks in the kitchen is especially apt in complex crime investigations. Too many investigators, even if they’re all good ones, can spoil a case.

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