AUSTIN (KXAN) – State politicians and law enforcement officials worked for years to improve preparedness for mass violence and identify threats before an attack. A key parts of that effort is the state’s suspicious activity reporting network that allows anyone to submit a tip about a potentially dangerous person.
The attack Tuesday at an Uvalde elementary school, which left 19 children and two teachers dead, underscored the importance of reporting clues to potentially violent behavior. While state officials say the Uvalde shooter made practically no public mention of his intentions, many other shooters have made statements — to friends or family, or online — that hinted at violent plans.
Law enforcement and school officials took swift action after new threats targeted at least a half dozen school districts over the past two days, including Manor, Georgetown, Round Rock, Taylor and Richardson. At Richardson ISD, a student was seen — and reported — walking to school with a rifle. Police found an AK-47 style pistol and a replica AR-15 pellet gun in his car, according to media reports.
Texas operates a Suspicious Activity Reporting Network, and anyone can send a tip and report suspicious activity through iWatchTexas.org. Law enforcement officials analyze each report, hoping to find information that could prevent an attack.
The state created iWatch in 2013 and has added to its capabilities periodically. In 2016, the state created a toll-free number (844-643-2251). In May 2018, after the deadly shooting at Santa Fe High School, Texas launched the iWatchTexas mobile app. Later, a school-safety reporting option was built into the platform.
“Governor Abbott issued a School and Firearm Safety Action Plan in May 2018,” according to the Department of Public Safety’s 2020 appropriations request. “One key recommendation was to prevent threats in advance. The report found that one way to do this is to use digital technology to prevent attacks. The report specified that the DPS iWatch Texas app allowed for a single, statewide reporting system to link critical data.”
There were roughly 6,500 reports received from 2017 to 2019. It is not clear how many suspicious activity reports have been received in the past three years. KXAN has asked for updated numbers for each year since 2019, and we will update this report when those become available. In 2019, it took DPS two months to provide that information.
For fiscal years 2022 and 2023, DPS requested $18.7 million for statewide unified information sharing, including $2.6 million to fund the Texas Suspicious Activity Reporting Network and $6.1 million for protective threat monitoring and analysis, according to its 2020 appropriations request.
State and local law enforcement filter suspicious activity reports through fusion centers, where local, state and federal law enforcement share resources and analyze threat-related information.
The centers are operated by state and local governments with help from federal authorities.
“Fusion centers conduct analysis and facilitate information sharing, assisting law enforcement and homeland security partners in preventing, protecting against, and responding to crime and terrorism,” according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
In 2019, KXAN visited the El Paso fusion center. El Paso Police Department Lt. Dustin Liston, the center’s director at that time, said fusion centers were created out of necessity. Before, law enforcement and intelligence agencies would “silo” information and guard it rather than sending valuable information to other agencies.
“The fusion center is designed to get all those different agencies together so they can share information,” he told KXAN at the time.
Tips, or so-called “suspicious activity reports,” are one of the most important pieces of information the fusion centers use.
“The evidence shows that most people knew something, or at least had a suspicion, before something happened,” Liston said.