February 2, 2023
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National Recap: FBI overhauls its tip-line system

The FBI announced Nov. 27 that it is overhauling its tip-line system. The FBI is making changes after receiving significant criticism for missing tips about the man who killed 17 people in a February 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

On Nov. 26, the FBI sent a letter to the state commission investigating the Parkland shooting, detailing the changes the agency has made since its error. The tip-line, or the FBI’s Public Access Line, is responsible for taking thousands of calls around the clock, which need to be interpreted to determine if the threat they are regarding is genuine.

Prior to the Parkland shooting, the FBI received two tips regarding the shooter, Nikolas Cruz — one last September and one in January. However, the FBI failed to investigate either of the tips thoroughly. Following the Parkland shooting in February, then-FBI Acting Deputy Director David Bowdich released a statement acknowledging the FBI’s oversights that led to the shooting.

The first tip came in on Sept. 25 last year, when an individual called and told the agency Cruz — unidentified at the time — posted a video on YouTube stating he wanted to become a school shooter. The case was directed to a field office in Jackson, Mississippi, but the agent investigating it was unable to make headway in determining who Cruz was. The case was closed 16 days later, without reaching out to YouTube or Google for a copy of the original posting or a preservation order.

The second tip came on Jan. 5, when someone close to Cruz warned the FBI of his recent behavior, which included disturbing web posts, firearm purchases and harming of small animals. However, this tip was never forwarded to a field office for further investigation, due to the office that reviewed it believing it had no lead value.

At a press conference Feb. 22, Bowdich acknowledged that the FBI failed to follow correct protocol for the tips regarding Cruz.

“There was a mistake made, we know that,” Bowdich said. “Our job is to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

The changes being made to the tip-line include adding more staff and supervisors, dividing calls into two tiers based on importance and enhancing staff training.

Tier 1 of the new system will be used to handle “nuisance calls” — as FBI Assistant Director Douglas E. Lindquist wrote in the letter — and provide general information about the FBI. Tier 2 will be taking calls with “potential lead values,” such as threats to life, counterterrorism and criminal matters. Additionally, synopses written by Tier 2 staff will be scored using a “key threat word list” and will then need to be reviewed by a supervisory special agent if the call transcript contains one or more word on the list.

The changes being implemented are also intended to improve the professional staff’s efficiency and accuracy. In addition to enhanced training to help staff better relay and interpret information from calls, a quality management team will also be reviewing all calls related to threat-to-life, counterterrorism and other issues. This is being done primarily to assess the operators’ phone, technical and decision-making skills, according to the letter.

In the letter, Lindquist wrote that these changes will ensure the FBI tip-line has “the staff and functionality to analyze and disseminate information in a timely manner to the field.”

Meredith Burke can be reached at mburke@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @meredithsburke