Gilmer, Texas: On Monday, March 9th, East Texas for Liberty hosted a talk on Texas’s fusion centers and current efforts to stem mass violence. Presenting was Lee Spiller, Executive Director of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights Texas, a mental health watchdog group that has been paying close attention to the state’s response to recent mass shootings.

“We were glad to present on this subject,” said Spiller. “While we are not experts on fusion centers, we’ve become increasingly alarmed at legislative discussion concerning violence. It sounds like Texas is about to start using a mix of intelligence data and mental health ‘experts’ to try to predict who will become dangerous. This is despite the fact that experts point out that mental health practitioners are nowhere near being able to accurately predict violence.”

Following the El Paso and Odessa shootings, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued a set of executive orders aimed at ramping up fusion center activities, suspicious activity reporting, and multidisciplinary threat assessment teams.

Spiller noted a September hearing before the Texas House Select Committee on Mass Violence Prevention and Community Safety in which Col. Steve McCraw testified about being able to intervene base on “pre-indicators” or people “thinking about” violence or crimes.

During his testimony, Col. McCraw elaborated on the composition of the threat assessment teams. He stated that they would include an analyst, a psychiatrist and local officials with expertise in getting people committed. 

“This is like Minority Report.  Would we arrest people based on pre-indicators?” Spiller asked the audience.  Several members of law enforcement who were in attendance shook their heads no.  “Law enforcement generally doesn’t get to make preventive arrests. But they’ve been forced into a position where they have to perform ‘preventive’ mental health detentions on a regular basis. Further, the mental health system is effectively missing a lot of the basic rights you depend on in the criminal system.”

“Our concern is that psychiatry is not an exact science; it relies upon arbitrary opinions about behavior and not medical or scientific facts.  Even within their own ranks, there are concerns about the unreliability of their diagnoses that can lead to unpredictable outcomes.[1] And in this case, people wrongly labeled as potentially violent could end up being detained and committed,” Spiller said.

Fusion centers have the capability of capturing a considerable amount of information, particularly as they are a joint effort that includes many federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, because of the secrecy involved with these centers, we do not get to see exactly what is collected. In fact, the Texas Tribune reported last year on their problems getting information about the centers. 

“We do know some of the kinds of data that are available commercially,” Spiller added.

According to N.Y. Times, about half the adults in the U.S. are in a law enforcement facial recognition database. More recently, the Times has reported on how easy it is to get cell phone location data. Ironically, while a US Supreme Court decision in 2018 ended the ability of law enforcement to use such location data without a warrant, private companies collect and sell such data.

“It was disturbing to learn how readily one’s information can be obtained, such as simply purchasing data; for example, a cell phone provider. Data that law enforcement must provide probable cause to obtain,” said Stacy McMahan, Executive Director for East Texas for Liberty.

During the 86th Texas legislative session, East Texas for Liberty strongly opposed Senate Bill 11 and other school threat assessment and mental health bills.

“It was clear to us, with the passage of the School Safety Bill, that students would be surveilled, parental rights could be detrimentally affected, and many more of our children will be prescribed dangerous drugs,” McMahan said. “What we didn’t realize was the extent to which schoolchildren were already being surveilled.”

Touching on this subject, Spiller related how a number of Texas school districts are using monitoring systems in what amounts to mass surveillance of their students. Specifically, Spiller cited monitoring services that work in tandem with some school districts’ internet services. Some of these surveillance systems even plug into school-based Google G-suite and Office 365 services.

Recent reports have illustrated how homework, creative writing assignments, songs students have written and much more are being monitored through artificial intelligence, and then more serious or alarming content is shared with a team of humans who then communicate with the school.[2] One service even bragged about the fact that some students these days prefer to keep a diary via computer and sometimes store the data on the same cloud service used by the school. Because of this, the company referred to these journals as a source of “actionable information.”[3] Besides the risk of false positives, it appears some of these services are able to peer into very personal papers and private thoughts.

While formal mental health screening in Texas would require parental consent, at least one service appears to be using artificial intelligence to identify students who may be depressed.[4]

In contrast, Spiller noted that vigilant citizens and good law enforcement practices have actually thwarted potential incidents of mass violence. Also, he noted that several mass shootings might have been prevented by vigorously enforcing laws already on the books.

“There are a number of solutions that are pretty simple, like enforcing laws already on the books,” said Spiller. “We feel that law enforcement generally does a really good job. The last thing we need to do is depend on surveillance, mental health assessments, and drugs that in some cases are associated with causing violence and suicide.”