FBI Cleveland
Public Affairs Officer Susan Licate
July 2, 2024

FBI Helps Public to Recognize Signs of Concerning Behavior

In Bid to Prevent Mass Attacks, the FBI Asks Public to 'Talk to Someone You Trust' if You Notice Concerning Behaviors

CLEVELAND, OH—FBI Cleveland and the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit are urging people to take notice when their friends, family, classmates, and coworkers show disturbing signs they may be on a “pathway to violence.”

Drawing on years of research on targeted violence and mass shooters—to include the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in 2022 in which 19 elementary school students and two teachers were killed—the FBI unit best known for its “profilers” is asking people to confide in someone they trust or respect when they see behaviors they think are concerning. Too often, the signs are ignored or dismissed because they are not recognized as potentially dangerous, or observers will directly confront the person they are concerned about, believing that alone will be enough to defuse concerning behaviors.

“We are focused on helping the public recognize threatening signs and report concerning behaviors. As bystanders, we might think we are overreacting when we observe something out of place or hesitant to say something for fear of appearing impulsive. The reality is that it is vitally important to report suspicious behavior, whether to the FBI or to local law enforcement,” said FBI Cleveland Special Agent in Charge Greg Nelsen.

“Following a tragedy or crisis, we often hear “something needs to change.” Helping the public recognize the behaviors and adopt the prevention tips are the first steps to that change,” he added.

“Our goal is to get bystanders, who are the most important part of the prevention cycle, to be able to consistently identify concerning behaviors that are backed by research and experience,” said Taylor Cilke, a crime analyst in the unit of BAU that studies threats. BAU resides in the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group and is part of the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, which was established in 1984 to develop strategies to combat serial and violent crimes.

“In order to prevent a threat, we have to identify it, and we have to assess it, and then we have to take steps to manage it,” Cilke said. “The hardest part is that identification piece. And that’s where the public and potential bystanders can really help us empower our communities and force-multiply our work. But if we never identify the threat, we can't assess and manage it.”

To that end, BAU this week launched a Prevent Mass Violence campaign that includes a new webpage and brochures containing tips and strategies to help potential bystanders understand what types of behaviors may be concerning and ways to respond. “The most important thing is to tell someone,” the webpage says. That may not necessarily mean law enforcement; it could be a school administrator, employee assistance peer, a boss, or someone else you trust.

“We’ve seen time and again that there are noticeable, observable behaviors,” said Brad Hentschel, a supervisory special agent in BAU, pointing to nearly three decades of academic research, along with BAU’s findings from studying mass violence events. “Mass shooters don't just snap. Recognizing and reporting the warning signs of someone thinking about and preparing for violence can be lifesaving.”

According to BAU, some concerning behaviors may include:

  • Comments, jokes, or threats about violent plans
  • Repeated or detailed fantasies about violence
  • Comments about hurting themselves or others
  • Creating a document, video, suicide note, or other item to explain or claim credit for future violence
  • Seeing violence as a way to solve their problems
  • Unusual difficulty coping with stress
  • Increasing isolation from family, friends, or others
  • Angry outbursts or physical aggression
  • Obsessive interest in prior attackers or attacks
  • Changing vocabulary, style of speech, or how they act in a way that reflects a hardened point of view or new sense of purpose associated with violent extremist causes

Last spring, as the one-year anniversary of the Uvalde shootings approached, BAU developed and distributed brochures related to preventing mass violence. BAU-trained special agents who serve as threat management coordinators in their field offices and provided the brochures to school administrators, mental health providers, and the human resource departments of companies in their regions. These resources are meant to help communities identify concerning behaviors and take action to get help—before violence is imminent.

For a more comprehensive list of concerning behaviors, to include brochures—along with resources and research about targeted violence—please visit the new webpage at www.fbi.gov/prevent. The webpage and all the supporting information are provided to encourage the public to “be the key to preventing violence by talking to someone you trust.”