When the special agent leading the FBI’s response to a church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, arrived on the scene in 2017 to join local police in assessing the crisis—in which a gunman killed 26 people before being shot dead—he made quick determinations about which FBI assets to deploy.
Special agent bomb technicians and evidence response teams from the FBI’s San Antonio Field Office were already on scene supporting the Texas Rangers, the state law enforcement agency leading the investigation. Their job was to secure the crime scene, determine what happened, and collect evidence to support the investigation. And victim specialists from the nearest FBI office were already beginning to coordinate with local agencies in the rural area to support the victims and their families.
But it was quickly evident after the November 5, 2017, shooting that the sheer magnitude of the incident would require a surge of resources to assist survivors, witnesses, and the families of the injured and deceased. So Christopher Combs, the special agent in charge of the San Antonio FBI, called up what he described as one of the Bureau’s key “crisis assets”—the Victim Services Response Team (VSRT), a specially trained cadre of FBI personnel whose primary function is to address the needs of victims in mass casualty events.
This week, the Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) commemorates National Crime Victims’ Rights Week (April 7-13) to celebrate crime victim services that are increasingly more inclusive, accessible, and trauma-informed. The intent is to raise awareness of victims’ rights and services, highlight local programs, recognize progress achieved, and honor victims and the professionals who serve them.
The FBI’s VSRT, which includes victim specialists, agents, and analysts from around the country, was established in 2005 to provide support for victims in large-scale events. Team members generally work their regular jobs within the Bureau but are on call for events like Sutherland Springs or, most recently, a mass shooting last October at a synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 dead.
Once on the ground for a deployment, the team engages with victims and families to assess their immediate needs and provides crisis intervention and other forms of emergency assistance. They work with local agencies to staff family assistance centers and support victims during investigative interviews. VSRT members also work closely with the Bureau’s Evidence Response Teams (ERTs) to collect, manage, clean, and return personal effects—items not considered evidence—collected from crime scenes.
“They’re as important to the active shooter response for the Bureau as the ERTs,” said Combs. He said the VSRT presence in Sutherland Springs meant his trained agents could focus all their attention on investigating the crime scene while a similarly trained team attended entirely to the victims. “To have a team that’s so specialized, I knew that they had just taken that entire piece off the table and were going to handle that for me,” Combs said.