University of Alabama Shooting: A Lesson in Red Flags

04/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The story of Amy Bishop, a biology professor at the University of Alabama who shot and killed several colleagues during a faculty meeting on February 12th, continues to amaze me. Reports state that Bishop was upset over disputes about her tenure and in her rage, she killed three people and injured three others.

Somehow, yet again, a spree shooter went unnoticed.

On the morning of the shooting, media outlets reported that Bishop's husband along with several students commented on her demeanor and all stated that there didn't seem to be anything unusual about her. However, Bishop's behavior that day doesn't interest me as much as her violent past. Given her history of violence, why was this woman permitted to work with students?

In 1986 Bishop shot and killed her 18-year-old brother with a shotgun in their Braintree, Massachusetts home. She claimed the gun, which had been purchased by her father for protection, discharged accidentally while she was trying to learn how to use it. Despite differing accounts from members of the Bishop family, Braintree Police Chief John Polio deemed the incident an accident. More than twenty years later, after Bishop stormed into a faculty meeting and fired more than six shots at colleagues, police are finally questioning whether they got it wrong back in 1986.

I recognize that my role as a police officer causes me to view crimes differently than the average citizen, but during the incident in 1986, Bishop fired the shotgun three different times. One shot could be mistaken as an accident, but THREE? I don't think so. While not being present at the original crime scene limits my knowledge of the facts, experience and basic common sense alone tell me this case was not handled properly.

And if the incident in 1986 wasn't enough of a red flag, Bishop was also questioned as a possible mail bomber suspect after two bombs were sent to a Harvard Medical School professor in 1993. This professor had recently given a negative evaluation of Bishop's doctorate work, which served as her potential motive. How these two incidents, spaced just seven years apart, did not raise questions about Amy Bishop boggles my mind.

Red flags are the cornerstone of homicide investigation and by studying them day in and day out, I have successfully kept others and myself out of harms way. Many of the recent school shootings and even the recent spree at Fort Bragg have taught us that attention to past behavior can predict a tendency for violent acts. Maybe if we learn to chase down a red flag rather than talk about it after a deadly shooting, some of these instances can be avoided in the future.