Trump Admin Thinks It Can Prevent Mass Shootings By Monitoring The Mentally Ill With Smartphones

Trump Admin Thinks It Can Prevent Mass Shootings By Monitoring The Mentally Ill With Smartphones

A proposal submitted to the White House suggests a study to explore whether monitoring mentally ill people via smartphone/watch technology can predict violence.

The White House is considering a proposal to study whether mass shootings could be prevented by monitoring mentally ill people for "small changes that might foretell violence," The Washington Post reports. The proposal is part of an initiative to establish an agency called the Health Advanced Research Projects Agency or HARPA, which would sit inside the Health and Human Services Department. Its director would be appointed by the president, and the agency would have a separate budget, according to three people with knowledge of conversations around the plan. HARPA would be modeled on DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that serves as the research arm of the Pentagon. The President, vice president, and Ivanka Trump were briefed on the proposal by former NBC chair Bob Wright, after Ivanka Trump enquired about producing new approaches to stopping mass shootings in the wake of recent shootings in El Paso and Ohio. Wright's new proposal within the agency, titled SAFEHOME -  Stopping Aberrant Fatal Events by Helping Overcome Mental Extremes - suggests a study to explore whether mentally ill people can be monitored using technology in smartwatches and smartphones to pinpoint when they're about to turn violent. 


According to sources who spoke to the Post, Wright has pushed the proposal to several senators and House members, Former vice president Joe Biden also advocated for HARPA while on the presidential campaign last month. The SAFEHOME proposal has understandably alarmed experts in the field of violence prevention and mental health. Marisa Randazzo, former chief research psychologist for the U.S. Secret Service, noted that the proposal is based on the untrue premise that mental illness is directly linked to mass shootings. A report released by the National Council on Behavioral Health in August addresses this claim, explaining that the issue is not as black-and-white as the Trump administration makes it out to be. "Simplistic conclusions ignore the fact that mass violence is caused by many social and psychological factors that interact in complex ways; that many, if not most, perpetrators do not have a major psychiatric disorder; and that the large majority of people with diagnosable mental illnesses are not violent toward others," the report states. Randazzo told The Washington Post, “I would love if some new technology suddenly came along that would help us identify violent risk, but there are so many things about this idea of predicting violence that doesn’t make sense.” 


Randazzo explained that the issues with the proposal lie not just with concerns about invasion of privacy, but also with the possibility of false positives. The program could essentially tag several suspects with no easy way of being able to determine if one was right, given that an event had not yet happened. According to a copy of the SAFEHOME proposal, all subjects involved in the study would be volunteers, and great care would be taken to “protect each individual’s privacy.” The proposal adds that “profiling of any kind must be avoided.” Emma Fridel, a doctoral candidate at Northeastern University specializing in mass murder, told Gizmodo, “Creating a watchlist of citizens who most likely will never act violently based on their mental health is a very dangerous proposal with major ethical considerations. Doing so to predict the unpredictable is utterly absurd.” Fridel added that “literally any risk factor identified for mass shooters will result in millions of false positives,” adding that the most reliable risk factor is gender, and that most mass murderers are male. “Should we create a list of all men in the United States and keep tabs on them?” she said. “Although it would be absurd and highly unethical, doing so would be more effective than keeping a list of persons with mental illness.” 


Geoffrey Ling, a Johns Hopkins University neurologist and the lead scientific advisor on the HARPA proposal, said that the SAFEHOME proposal could also lead to such advances as the prediction and subsequent prevention of suicide and child abuse. Ling also added that while the proposal was controversial, he'd seen no better ideas yet to address the issue, saying, “To those who say this is a half-baked idea, I would say, ‘What’s your idea? What are you doing about this?’ ”

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