Senate committee explores how Texans, social media companies can prevent mass violence


AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Lawmakers gathering in Austin Wednesday are tackling the subject of how law enforcement, mental health providers, fusion centers and social media companies can work together to prevent mass violence in the state.

Officials from a handful of the world’s largest tech companies told a panel of state senators they are working alongside law enforcement agencies to thwart the next massacres in Texas.

The head of the Texas Department of Public Safety sees it slightly differently.

“I believe that they want to do the right thing,” DPS director Steve McCraw, said. “It just hasn’t happened yet.”

Two mass shootings this year prompted the Senate Select Committee on Mass Violence Prevention and Community Safety hearings. The shooting at an El Paso Walmart in August killed 22 people and injured 24 others. In that case, the shooter’s mother had tried to reach out to law enforcement, concerned about her son owning an “AK” type gun.

A few weeks later, a man shot and killed seven people and wounded 17 others along the interstate between Midland and Odessa. That gunman had been fired shortly beforehand, and he called both police and the FBI before the shooting began.

The committee has met four times so far, including in both El Paso and Odessa, and has been charged with exploring seven points related to mass violence prevention. It considered the following topic Wednesday:

Assess how state and local law enforcement agencies, fusion centers, mental health providers, digital platforms and social media companies such as Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc., can better collaborate to detect, prevent, and respond to mass violence and terroristic activity. Examine what resources, staffing and protocols are necessary to enhance these partnerships and whether state funding is needed to assist local authorities in this endeavor.

“Facebook employs more than 35,000 people across the globe focused on safety and security,” Ana Martinez, the head of public policy and community engagement for Facebook’s Southwest region, told lawmakers.

She said the company discloses account records “solely in accordance with our terms of service and applicable law.”

From July to September of this year, the company took down seven million pieces of content related to hate speech, Martinez said. During the first six months of the year, the company received 50,000 law enforcement requests for information in the United States, with over 3,000 of those requests submitted as emergency requests. Microsoft gets approximately 40,000 requests from around the world each year.

“What we do need is cooperation to get the information back in a timely manner,” McCraw said.

“The private sector is where expertise lies,” he said.

A handful of entities around the state use Mutualink, including the Texas Department of Public Safety, regional law enforcement agencies in the Dallas and Houston areas, as well as some school districts. Devra Kelly serves as the company’s solutions manager. She said the product was born out of situations like the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“The two things that kept quicker response from happening was the first responders could not speak to one another effectively and there were no eyes to the incident, they couldn’t see what was going on,” Kelly said. “They couldn’t share what they needed to share so that was the birth of Mutualink, is to give those first responders those tools they needed to bring that incident to a close as quickly as they possibly could.”

Kelly said Santa Fe ISD, Dickinson ISD and Texas City ISD have installed the service.

Texas City ISD’s executive director of security and school safety, Mike Matranga, said it will take societal change with respect to social media to improve safety more effectively.

“We depend upon social media to the point where we are saying and doing things most people in the past wouldn’t have said or done because of repercussions,” Matranga said.

“The causes are not being addressed because we are treating the symptoms,” he lamented.

He explained the district leverages technology to its advantage.

“You can have a Ferrari, but if you don’t know how to drive it, it is no good,” he explained. “You can have a pick up truck but if you continue to put diesel in it instead of unleaded fuel, it is not going to perform the way it was designed to.”

“If we can proactively seek out a threat and identify it so that we don’t have to react, that’s how we all win,” he said.

Matranga said the addage of “see something, say something is just not enough anymore.”

“We’ve got to see something, say something, do something,” he said.

Watch the full hearing by clicking here.

Steffi Lee contributed to this report.

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