Security Overreaction

Who needs terrorists? We can cause terror all by ourselves:

A worker at a Downtown building who was using a pellet gun with a scope to scare pigeons prompted a massive police response that led to the shutdown of several blocks this afternoon.

[...]

Dozens of motorcycle and special response officers responded to the area.

The Fort Pitt Tunnels inbound were shut down temporarily.

The Port Authority was forced to reroute buses around the area.

People in some buildings were told to stay inside while those in others were evacuated.

Students who attend Pittsburgh High School for the Creative & Performing Arts (CAPA High) remained in their Fort Duquesne Boulevard school this afternoon until the situation was resolved.

The All-City Senior Orchestra rehearsal scheduled for 4 p.m. at CAPA High has been canceled.

Students who attend all other Pittsburgh Public Schools have been dismissed since Port Authority buses and school buses that normally travel through Downtown were being re-routed.

Community College of Allegheny County canceled evening classes at its Downtown center tonight on Stanwix Street.

Before the all-clear was given and roads were reopened, police searched buildings floor-by-floor looking for the gunman and stationed snipers in surrounding buildings.

Posted on March 24, 2006 at 7:59 AM • 49 Comments

Comments

SteveMarch 24, 2006 8:26 AM

I wonder whether the police (etc.) will record this internally as a security failure, and introduce measures to avoid similar failures in future, or just put it down to the real terrorists "making" everyone twitchy.

Here in the UK, of course, the authorities would seriously consider "solving" the problem by banning pellet guns. This turns a false positive into a true positive and hence a failure into a success.

JimLMarch 24, 2006 8:40 AM

Here in Pittsburgh authorities are patting themselves on the back for doing such a fine job.

Andre LePlumeMarch 24, 2006 8:40 AM

Note to DHS: be on the lookout for orders of "inflatable novelty snipers". Investigate all purchasers.

arlMarch 24, 2006 8:54 AM

Well, depending on the pelet gun it would be very difficult to tell if the guy had a firearm or not. Would this have been an overreaction if he had a firearm of the same size and configuration at that location?

In my book a guy in the middle of the city, up high and with a scoped rifle might need a little attention.

TankMarch 24, 2006 9:08 AM

Correct arl.
Probably just a question of whether they could have sent someone out to check what the specific threat was before issuing the warnings which were vague enough to get the orchestra recitals cancelled.

Mary RMarch 24, 2006 9:14 AM

They had this on The Daily Show last night. Along with a suspicious package at the White House and another one somewhere else. Very funny watching the intercut 24 hr news networks.

Should be repeating during the day today and Monday night at 8PM.

Gary in DCMarch 24, 2006 9:19 AM

The pellet gun does make it sound farcical, but snipers are hardly a movie-plot threat. In DC, we created our own sniper terror when we saw white box trucks and vans near the first shooting, saw them at every subsequent shooting, and then started running from white box trucks and vans as we filled our gas or shopped. But then again, there were real snipers out there. Just not in one of the million white trucks and vans.

JosephMarch 24, 2006 9:42 AM

@arl:

"Would this have been an overreaction if he had a firearm of the same size and configuration at that location?"

Exactly. With so many "postal" people in the news lately, I think the police response was warranted. And if the high school for the orchestra recital was within firing distance of the roof with the supposed sniper, and people were going to start arriving and milling about on the lawn, they were probably justified in cancelling it.

Always be careful to "judge not" unless you were living in the neighborhood and had a good idea of what was going on.

DMarch 24, 2006 9:45 AM

OK: yes, the guy needs to be checked out. But this response was *way* overboard.

Cop approaches: "Hey, buddy...". The shooters response dictates his motive.
- He says "yes, sir" and there's nothing to worry about;
- or he points the gun at the officer at which point to officer shoots him;
- or he panics, drops his weapon and runs, officer recovers the weapon, discovers its a toy and the "crisis" is over.

ChrisMarch 24, 2006 9:50 AM

@D;

The problem of course, is that the gunman is apparently in hiding. The police have two independent witnesses who saw the man with a gun and scope, but now the police can't find him. There's nobody to approach.

So now what do you do?

NE PatriotMarch 24, 2006 10:03 AM

Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald both demonstrated what can happen when a determined individual with a rifle takes a high position. Given that the cost of a false negative is high, until they identified the nature of the gunman, it was entirely prudent that they cordoned off the area.
Now, the authorities would be remiss if they don't conduct a postmortem on the response and determine if there were ways they could have resolved the issue more quickly, but that's another kettle of fish entirely.

Jeff KMarch 24, 2006 10:15 AM

Apparently the sniper was shooting at birds inside the building. According to Channel 4(http://www.thepittsburghchannel.com/news/8215521/detail.html):

"I didn't even know that I was the one they were looking for -- we was told sniper's on different roofs -- and I was never on a roof,"said Wills.

"I'm certainly sorry for all that. I didn't want to mess anybody up. It's certainly out of my control. Certainly if I had known about it, I would have turned myself in," said Wills

"Actually, they [police] moved their car to let me out. Before they let me out of town, they moved their car so I could get out," said Wills.

Wills calls the incident "much ado about nothing."

Moshe YudkowskyMarch 24, 2006 10:20 AM

Two witnesses reported seeing a man with a scoped rifle, and the police could not find the man. After-action reports show that there was indeed a man with a rifle on the building, so it's not as if though the threat wasn't credible.

I can't understand how the police response can be considered an overreaction. Are they supposed to wait until after a sniper pots one or two high-school students?

If the alledged sniper had never been found, some Monday-morning quarterbacks would no doubt claim that the response was an overreaction. And they would be wrong, of course.

Steve-OMarch 24, 2006 11:10 AM

This seems to be the result of a dangerously black-and-white way of thinking that has come to pervade official attitudes to domestic and foreign relations.

The war on drugs: there are no 'hard' or 'soft' illicit drugs; all of them, and all drug users, are the scourge of society.

The war on terror: "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."

Homeland security: there are no hoaxes or minor threats, only the clear and present danger of mass destruction.

As long as there's no room for error or nuance--or simple rationality-- on the part of official responses, more money will be wasted, authority will tend towards authoritarianism, and terror will be spread rather than controlled.

perianwyrMarch 24, 2006 11:19 AM

Homeland security: there are no hoaxes or minor threats, only the clear and present danger of mass destruction.

I wouldn't be so quick to say that. Isn't a good hoax difficult to tell from the real thing? The message here, I would say, is that hoaxing a security threat is something best not indulged in.

That having been said, treating all things, large, small, and crazy, as massive potential terrorist threats is wasteful, silly, and repressive.Threatening to blow up a building, even for laughs, is still a threat. Now, wheatpasting papers up around a building that purport to put it under a voodoo hex is not a homeland security threat. But that isn't what we're talking about here. I'd say this was an appropriate police response.

Bruce SchneierMarch 24, 2006 11:24 AM

I'm not saying that there should have been no reaction, or that a sniper isn't a threat, or that the police should not have been called, or anything along those lines. I am saying that this is an extreme overreaction to the threat of a single sniper.

Closing a tunnel? Evacuating buildings? Because of one guy with a gun?

royMarch 24, 2006 11:40 AM

Ironic.

Had there been an actual murder-bent sniper with a scoped high-powered rifle, or a dozen such snipers, decked out in SWAT gear, no action would have been taken, not until well after the shooting started and somebody would realize the wrong people kept getting shot.

jmrMarch 24, 2006 12:11 PM

Exactly how would a sniper shoot people in a tunnel?

As a gun-owner myself, I am living in fear of those people who don't own them.

Bruce SchneierMarch 24, 2006 1:34 PM

"Bruce, does 'Charles Whitman' ring any bells?"

Yep. Harrry Chapin wrote a song about him. (The Boomtown Rats wrote a song about a different sinper.)

Josh OMarch 24, 2006 1:45 PM

Those of you who walk around NYC or other large cities in the US probably pass many people with guns everyday. Some of these are bad guys, and many more are illegally carrying those guns. The question is, why aren't we afraid when we know that the guns are there, but we can't see them. As soon as someone sees one, they assume the worst, and freak out. I think it's not dissimilar to the American preoccupation with womens' breasts as discussed in the fake money post a few days ago. Just because we don't see guns all the time, we assume anyone with a gun want's to kll us. You can go to some parts of the country where people are driving around with guns in their rear window's gun rack, and nobody thinks their going to kill them, even if they don't know that person. Why are big cities different?

harkymanMarch 24, 2006 1:52 PM

Bruce, I work about seven minutes from the location of the incident. Downtown Pittsburgh streets can turn into a complete snarl almost instantly, likewise the tunnels which are major ingress-egress routes from the main triangle. If everyone tries to leave at once (outside of the normal rush hour pattern which they already have worked out, say, if people tried to flee a strategically placed gunman), there will be total gridlock and a target-rich environment.

I don't know too many people where I work who are aggrieved with the way the city reacted.

harkymanMarch 24, 2006 1:56 PM

Josh O --

It's very different. There are plenty of genuinely good reasons to carry a concealed handgun. I can think of few good reasons to carry a scoped rifle into a high rise. Can you?

We don't think anything of concealed carry or rifles/shotguns in gun racks, because it is usual, accepted behavior. Once again, carrying a scoped rifle into a downtown office building is highly unusual.

jmrMarch 24, 2006 2:00 PM

Actually, harkyman, "we" DO think a lot about concealed carry. I was once harrassed by State Police because I was carrying concealed in the city of Boston.

He flat out told me that I should not exercise my rights and confiscated my weapon. I had broken no law. The weapon was returned to me almost a week later. The officer simply didn't want to admit that there was nothing he could do, and couldn't fathom handing me back my legal firearm on a city street.

Maybe people don't think of it much from where you are, but in the People's Republik of Massachusetts they think owning a gun is a major crime.

AnonymousMarch 24, 2006 2:17 PM

"In letters to Police Chief Robert McNeilly, the union suggests that Commander Dom Costa ignored detailed police procedures for negotiating with barricaded suspects before he led a SWAT team into the Homewood house where the firefight occurred. Costa, SWAT officer Thomas Huerbin and Brookins were all shot, none fatally. Currently, police management is reviewing the incident, but the FOP says that’s not enough." Pgh City Paper, writer: Rich Lord

Costa was appointed to be police chief by Mayor O'Connor. Mayor O'Connor ignored any critics of Costas tactical skills. It was all politics. The FOP was right, it wasn't enough. They'll make it up as they go along. Avoid Pittsburgh if you can. There's more to it, but I'll leave it at that.

AnonymousMarch 24, 2006 2:31 PM

Check this out from a local web site.
Peter R. DeFazio
SHERIFF
Dennis Skosnik
CHIEF DEPUTY
http://www.sheriffalleghenycounty.com/crimprev.html

They may want to take Skosniks name off of the web site.
Mar 12, 2006
Last week, Dennis Skosnik, the North Fayette Township resident who was DeFazio's chief deputy, pleaded guilty to five of the 12 counts with which he was charged ...
Dennis Skosnik, who pleaded guilty last week to wire fraud, bribery, mail fraud, money laundering and tampering with a witness.

I guess they're slow updating things.
Bad information from Keystone Kops.
We may have some of the most corrupt police in the United States in Pittsburgh.
A bunch of idiots, led by idiots.

AnonymousMarch 24, 2006 2:42 PM

In 1970, Congress passed the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, Title 18, United States Code, Sections 1961-1968. At the time, Congress' goal was to eliminate the ill-affects of organized crime on the nation's economy.

It's as if now the only crime being organized now is by the crime bosses and political nitwits. We have like 500 special deputy sheriffs. County taxpayers pay to have these deputies fingerprinted and sworn in, even though they have no official police duties or powers. They all get a badge. What a joke.

AnonymousMarch 24, 2006 2:52 PM

This is how Pittsburgh seems to operate.
The deputy held a gun to his head and my father assured him that either his brains, or his signature, would be on the contract. That's a true story.

AnonymousMarch 24, 2006 2:59 PM

Pittsburgh is getting slots next!
Let the games begin.

Overreaction in action.
Wait a minute, you took Freddie in because the Corleone Family bankrolled your casino, because the Molinari Family on the Coast guaranteed his safety. Now we're talking business, let's talk business.

Yeah, let's talk business, Mike. First of all, you're all done. The Corleone Family don't even have that kind of muscle anymore. The Godfather's sick, right? You're getting chased out of New York by Barzini and the other Families. What do you think is going on here? You think you can come to my hotel and take over? I talked to Barzini, I can make a deal with him, and still keep my hotel!

Is that why you slapped my brother around in public?

AnonymousMarch 24, 2006 3:02 PM

The DeFazio Family wants to sell me out? No, I sell you out, you don't sell me out.

AnonymousMarch 24, 2006 3:10 PM

I know this lawyer, I think he's a special deputy sheriff in Allegheny County. You got to think long term. He was! Now we have the unions, we have the gambling; and they're the best things to have. But narcotics is a thing of the future. And if we don't get a piece of that action, we risk everything we have. I mean not now, but, ah, ten years from now. Pittsburgh just won't have a future.

the endMarch 24, 2006 3:23 PM

Sometimes you need to strike with a stealth force. You need to know what the threat is and then attack fast, even if the police are the threat.

Stay safe out there.

EscapedFromMonValleyMarch 24, 2006 8:01 PM

Are the Pittsburgh Police still picking up the weekly pad? Does anybody know for sure?

Too scared to sayMarch 25, 2006 2:48 AM

Most people think of 9/11 in terms of the deaths of that day, and the symbolic and actual damage to property in the form of the Twin Towers falling. But that wasn't the real damage. The real damage was to the very core value that America (and others) hold so dear - freedom. And the (evil) genius of the attackers was that they realized that the best way to see damage inflicted on freedom is to induce the target to damage its *own* freedom. It's as if the 9/11 attackers caused an autoimmune disease in the USA. They can now stand back and watch the body kill the very thing that makes it what it is.

That they have succeeded can be seen by events like this one in Pittsburgh. Would it have happened pre-9/11?

JDMarch 25, 2006 6:42 AM

If you discredit the authority that issues concealed carry permits, like the county sheriff, you put other things in question. The gun control people want DeFazio in office. It's all part of their agenda. We'll see who gets discredited.

JDMarch 25, 2006 12:03 PM

Too scared to say,
There are checks in place that expose evil and destroy it. The genius of the crowd can't be beat. Our tolerance for corruption as a nation has gone down following 9/11. Hate may of gone up. People hate evil mobs, hellbent on destruction. Life is a natural state of being in balance. When the balance is right, you have security.It's like your checking account.

Too scared to sayMarch 25, 2006 5:16 PM

JD,
Of course there are checks. But there were checks in Hitler's Germany, and in the Soviet Union. There were checks in Saddam's Iraq. Checks can be as evil as the things they are meant to prevent.

What made America different from those regimes, and indeed even from the European democracies, was that it clearly articulated its belief in the self-evident nature of certain *unalienable* rights - liberty being one of them.

But if America finds itself going (or forced) down a path where it begins to deny those rights, it's arguable it is no longer America.

JDMarch 25, 2006 7:00 PM

Look at what happened to Germany, the Soviet Union and Iraq. They all had smart leadership. We don't have that problem. The smart people aren't very interested in government jobs. Some of the top nazis were Ph.d's. The Soviets were very smart. I haven't studied Iraq, but I'm sure Saddam had some real smart people with him. What do we have? Bush and a bunch of people in Washington lobbying and BS'ing each other. They're going to fix Iraq, fix this, fix that. I guess you could spend all day worrying about it. If you need a plumber, you don't call a politician.

JDMarch 25, 2006 7:16 PM

Josh had a good question.
Why are big cities different?
Concerning guns and people.
Some big cities are dying and
people want to blame it on
something. Blame it all on guns.
It's never the people. Suburbia
is armed to the hilt. So go figure.

Felix_the_MacMarch 25, 2006 7:39 PM

UK perspective: Nobody has any business carrying a rifle (shaped gun) in a city unless they are wearing a uniform.

So, I don't think they overreacted.
I'm concerned that they didn't catch the guy.
It even sounds like, if they done it slightly differently he would have identified himself as he left the 'zone'.

A chap in London a few years ago got shot by the police because somebody reported that he was carying a rifle/shotgun IN A PLASTIC BAG.

They killed him - he was carrying a table leg.

The UK police firearms officers seem to be just as bad if not worse than 'you bloody Americans' when it comes to shooting as an accepted means to solve a problem.

SteveSMarch 25, 2006 7:57 PM

I was in a building about a block from the incident, and I think the tunnels were closed because of the relative position of the suspected sniper and the off-ramps from the tunnel. If someone were on the roof of that building with a good rifle, they would have a clear line of sight to the off ramps of the Fort Pitt Bridge, and therefore could have starting picking off cars on the ramps. There's nowhere to go except the various off ramps after coming through the tunnel, so the only way to keep traffic from them would be to close the tunnels entirely.

As much as I want to say that this was an overreaction, I keep thinking that if he had started shooting at people, people today would be asking why things weren't done even more quickly.

JDMarch 26, 2006 6:40 AM

Bruce,
When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations.
"Submit. — In this, or any other sphere;
Secure to be as blessed as thou can bear,
Safe in the hand of one disposing Power..."
He's got the whole world in his hands.
The people who founded modern science were usually those whose love of truth exceeded their love of power. There's really no limit to the good you can do, if you don't care who gets the credit. Reality is always something you couldn't of guessed, I guess. Corruption always gets weeded out. Each must tend to his own garden.

SkepticMarch 27, 2006 7:57 AM

Incident response is hard, in part, because it is not quite clear what the incident actually was. Information tends to be sketchy and incomplete, and there is usually a sense of urgency in preparing possible countermeasures. This, however, does not mean that full force has to be exercised an all incidents.

Responding to a "man with a rifle" sighting by DoS'ing the area does seem excessive... In the very least it is indicative that the police did not have a clear way of assessing risks and communicating high quality response information. Acknwledging that would have spared them some dignity.

Leave a comment

Allowed HTML: <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre>

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Co3 Systems, Inc..