There’s not enough terrorism for…DHS?
DHS has branched out beyond its statutory mandate of addressing emergencies and preventing terrorism into addressing the hodgepodge category of “targeted violence,” which, oddly, includes both school shootings and sabotaging oil pipelines among other crimes. Drawing on the targeted violence category, DHS has justified funding a broad diversity of projects, some of which bear no relation to the agency objectives of DHS.
Based on internal documents, DHS leans heavily on a presumption that any threat must bear some relevance to an institutional mandate to defend against terrorism. In a document obtained via FOIA, DHS disclaims that it takes time to make a determination of whether a crime counts as terrorism, but adds “whether or not an individual act of violence or destruction is considered terrorism by law – it is terrorizing to the people who experience it” [emphasis from DHS]. Seemingly extrapolating from that presumption, DHS has expanded terrorism prevention to all violence that could terrorize people. Accompanying this ballooning mandate has been a reliance on unvalidated indicators of mobilization to violence, an outsourcing of intelligence gathering to community members, and incentivization of communities to more closely integrate police in threat assessment. The Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention (TVTP) grant program, administered by the Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships (CP3), is a hotspot for data deficient, overbroad programs targeted at reducing the incidence of targeted violence and terrorism. The inclusion of targeted violence has allowed DHS to subsume a diverse array of projects under its mandate, many of which cause collateral damage to community resources. It’s high time to end the program. To that end, it’s worth diving into some of the many issues with the TVTP grant program.
TVTP’s pseudoscience problem
Through its TVTP grant program, DHS encourages grantees to create programming that reinforces “protective factors” while addressing “risk factors.” DHS maintains plausible deniability for its unscientific approach by outsourcing programmatic design to its grantees.
Grantees are left alone to muddle through a vast DHS library of research. And just because DHS commissions empirically-validated research, it doesn’t mean that the research translates cleanly into public policy. Many studies on risk factors for violence search for common threads among terrorists. There are indeed patterns. Many people who commit acts of terrorism are dissatisfied with their lives, and many school shooters experience psychosis. But that doesn’t mean those commonalities have predictive power. Statistically, most crimes are committed by people aged 15-25, but that doesn’t mean we can meaningfully predict based on someone’s age alone whether they will commit a crime. This type of backwards reasoning permeates DHS’ approach to violence prevention.
Let’s linger on mental health for a moment. In general, people with mental illnesses are no more likely to be violent than the general public. There are limited exceptions – people with auditory hallucinations are slightly more likely than average to commit violence – but the number of people suffering from mental illness who will never commit violence greatly eclipses the number of people who will. Yet DHS draws extensively on this tenuous connection to fund grantees that link clinicians with cops to conduct threat assessment of people deemed at risk of committing violence. By the admission of a Bureau of Justice Assistance-funded study, “research shows that clinicians’ judgment regarding risk is no better than chance,” but DHS doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo. A whopping 82% of TVTP grants across the 2020 and 2021 cycles rely on behavioral threat assessment. Federal funding for this type of crystal ball gazing contributes to the stigmatization of mental health conditions and throws up additional obstacles between people and mental health resources.
Then there’s the behavioral indicators, which are somehow even more devoid of scientific content than the mental health indicators. Previous CVE grantees instructed school officials to screen teenagers going through breakups for terrorism. In its 2021 grant, the Los Angeles Police Department created train-the-trainer programs that screen for “pre-violence” behaviors that include “identity struggles” and lacking a sense of belonging. Such vague behavioral indicators often place innocent people who had no intention of committing an act of terrorism or targeted violence under the microscope. Such scrutiny can have dire consequences. In Oregon, an autistic teenager stopped going to school almost completely after a behavioral threat assessment team placed him under suspicion of being a future school shooter.
Grantees piece together violence prevention programming by drawing upon a milieu of studies largely lacking in scientific predictive power. This leads to a mess of approaches. Grantees include universities conducting threat assessments of their students, a feel-good group hosting music jam sessions for Black and white musicians, and even a group creating a card game about differences. It’s a puzzling array of activities, and little wonder that DHS has been unable to supply research pointing to any detectable decrease in violence or terrorism as a result of its programs. The agency, apparently realizing this problem, recently commissioned a study from one of its university Centers of Excellence, NCITE at the University of Nebraska Omaha. Given that the government has failed to empirically justify CVE programs after nearly a decade of operation, CVE watchers assume that this DHS-funded report will also turn up little evidence in support of the program.
This outsourcing doubles as a shield for DHS from accountability. One DHS grantee trains high school students to mentor middle school students, meaning that any of the content those middle school students received is far removed from any top-level accountability coming from DHS. While grantees are expected to adhere to civil liberties protections, most grantees merely nod to the need for privacy while conducting pre-crime violence prevention programming.
All hands on deck intervention
While DHS remains fuzzy on the empirical mandate for its TVTP grant program, it wastes no time in recruiting community members to participate in its nebulous violence prevention programs. Many grantees rely on train-the-trainer or bystander intervention programs designed to involve diverse community members in the monitoring of suspect individuals. Often, this has the effect of more closely integrating law enforcement with social services. A Brennan Center analysis found that, in the 2021 grant cycle, 78% of grantees integrated law enforcement in their violence response plans. This statistic is particularly concerning taken in concert with DHS’ examples of successful intervention. In DHS internal training materials, the agency uplifts examples where a friend, a pastor, a hairdresser, a fellow high school student, and even the subject’s ex-husband could have intervened. Through its TVTP grant program, DHS effectively tasks communities with becoming networks of informants, all based on so-called indicators that have little predictive value beyond sheer chance. Some of these programs are, at best, a waste of money. Others are actively nefarious, bringing law enforcement into contact with teachers, social workers, and even ex-husbands. The consequences of being identified as suspicious can be dire.
It’s time to eliminate funding for CP3 and TVTP
Civil society analysis after civil society analysis has pointed to the damaging impacts of DHS’ CVE programs, including the rebranded TVTP grant administered by the CP3 office. DHS has two classic moves: stalling for time for promised empirical validation to materialize, and expanding the reach of its unproven programs. In 2021, despite an absence of examples of the grant’s success beyond busywork metrics, the TVTP grant program budget doubled.
We’ve had enough of DHS’ failure to protect civil liberties while expanding dangerous and unproven programs. After fighting for transparency language last year, this year Defending Rights & Dissent and a broad coalition of organizations are trying to eliminate funding for CP3 and TVTP once and for all.
DHS should not be permitted to weaponize community groups to funnel suspect people towards police, especially when the evidence drawn upon is heavily circumspect.