By: James A. Savage, Jr.
Senior Associate, Merletti Gonzales
Few would argue that our society was not physically or mentally prepared for a curveball such as COVID 19. It’s been a rough, few months and it’s far from over. The health, financial, social and emotional effects of COVID 19 are unfolding before us and history will be the judge as to the full extent of the damage left in its wake. While we have all been affected by this public health crisis, we have not all been affected the same way. Some of us have experienced major financial setbacks, sick family members or in extreme cases a death of a family member due to COVID-19. Some have been subject to domestic abuse or witnessed abuse during the quarantine with no alternative but to stay home. And of course, we have all experienced social isolation and loss of our usual support systems and daily routines which help bring order and comfort to our lives.
To say human behavior is complicated does not do justice to the myriad of influences and experiences which make us who we are and see the world in a certain way. Stress is a part of everyday life and in many cases serves as a positive impetus for action. But too many accumulated stressors, in conjunction with a fragile or damaged psyche, can influence human behavior in very negative ways.
Early reports have shown the deleterious effects of the pandemic on mental health and feelings of desperation with an 800-1000% increase in the number of calls to the national suicide hotlines. Perhaps this should’ve been expected but the truth is there’s no quick and obvious way to identify specific individuals and the extent to which their mental and emotional wellbeing has been severely impacted by this pandemic. This is important because when individuals are traumatized and in extreme distress, they are more susceptible to acting out. With the addition of multiple stressors to an existing grievance such as job loss, perception of being mistreated, bullying or disenfranchisement, there’s a chance that an individual may be experiencing a sense of desperation and treading down the pathway of targeted violence.
What is targeted violence? Targeted violence is different than “affective” or reactionary violence that is defensive and automatic in response to a threat. In contrast, targeted violence is predatory and offensive in nature and usually starts with a real or perceived grievance. The basis of targeted violence is to avenge a serious injustice or eliminate a source of intense pain or frustration in the perpetrator’s life, often accompanied by feelings of desperation. The lifecycle of targeted violence involves a number of steps including the belief that violence is a viable and justifiable solution to a grievance. Subsequent steps include planning & research, preparation, probing or breaches and ultimately an act of violence directed specifically at an individual or group.
Fortunately, not everyone who starts down the pathway of targeted violence ever follows through with the final act. We’ve all had grievances before and have been able to let go of these before they consumed us and before we started to consider violence as a legitimate solution. But if we know inevitably there are individuals in our community, workplace and schools who may have grievances and have also been severely affected by painful stressors, including the current pandemic, what should we do? How do we address those individuals who are past the point of contemplating a healthy resolution to their problems and may be treading down the pathway of targeted violence?
There is an effective and internationally recognized methodology to identify and manage individuals who may be on a pathway to commit an act of targeted violence. This approach is known as behavioral threat assessment and draws upon investigative techniques, identification of risk factors/stressors, understanding of mental health issues and offers a broad range of intervention strategies. The goal of behavioral threat assessment is not prediction or criminal prosecution- it is singularly focused on the prevention of targeted violence.
I have been a continuing student of behavioral threat assessment since my early days as a Special Agent in the U.S. Secret Service performing protective intelligence assessments. The Secret Service is an agency with an unparalleled depth of experience in assessing the dangerousness of individuals who make threats or exhibit concerning behavior directed at our nation’s leaders and visiting foreign heads of state. By virtue of its long standing protective mission, the U.S. Secret Service has a renowned history of conducting significant research studies about a wide range of attackers and their individual cases to better inform the prevention of target violence against public officials, celebrities, the workplace and schools.
What the U.S. Secret Service Exceptional Case Study Project (ECSP) of the mid 1990’s revealed that is also supported by contemporary research findings is that there are usually warning signs that precede an act of targeted violence and oftentimes those warning signs are knowable or observable. The ECSP went on to describe the steps preceding an act of targeted violence that are discernible, deliberate and require planning.
Major findings from these studies indicate that:
• Incidents of targeted violence at schools and the workplace rarely were sudden, impulsive acts
• Prior to most incidents, other people knew about the attacker’s idea and/or plan to attack
• Most attackers did not threaten their targets directly prior to advancing the attack
• There is no accurate or useful “profile” of a perpetrator of targeted violence
• Most attackers engaged in some behavior prior to the incident that caused others concern or indicated a need for help
• Most attackers had difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures. Moreover, many had considered or attempted suicide
• Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted, or injured by others prior to the attack
• Most attackers had access to and had used weapons prior to the attack
• Despite prompt law enforcement responses, most shooting incidents were stopped by means other than law enforcement intervention
The studies went on to specify eight components of a behavioral threat assessment program that organizations of any size in any sector can and should adopt. The elements are as follows:
• Create a multi-disciplinary threat assessment team
• Define Concerning Behaviors
• Create a central reporting mechanism
• Determine the threshold for LE intervention
• Establish assessment procedures (workflow)
• Develop Risk Management Options
• Create & promote safe environment (school/workplace/community)
• Conduct training for stakeholders
Subsequent research from the Secret Service and others indicates that the behavioral threat assessment methodology can be effective in identifying potential threats of targeted violence and that this methodology can be successfully employed in the workplace, in the community and at schools.
Behavioral threat assessment is a specific discipline which requires training, structure and experience. Historically, behavioral threat assessment training is not commonly taught to police officers or the law enforcement community unless there’s a specific need- usually relating to the support of a protective or prevention related mission. However, in current practice threat assessment can be learned and applied by mental health professionals, security consultants, school administrators, the criminal justice community and human resource professionals.
Due to their demonstrated effectiveness, behavioral threat assessment programs are being legislatively mandated for schools across the country and being advocated by professional human resource organizations for the workplace.
It is the view of OSHA and increasingly in the courts, that employers have a duty to provide a safe work environment and take reasonable steps to address workplace violence. Federal legislation, known as the TAPS Act (Threat Assessment, Prevention & Safety Act/HR 838), is currently pending to create a national strategy to prevent targeted violence using behavioral threat assessment as the foundation.
The key message here is that we are not powerless to prevent acts of targeted violence. The studies and findings definitively indicate that people who commit acts of targeted violence don’t just “snap”. They are usually experiencing intense distress and, in their mind, they see violence as a justifiable option to solve a long standing grievance. There are usually observable signs or steps following the grievance which include moving through planning and preparatory stages that signal an individual is planning an attack. Due to the nature of targeted violence which plays out over time and usually with observable signs, we have an opportunity and obligation to intervene if we are prepared and informed.
Don’t wait for a tragedy to occur on your property, in your school or in your office which could have been recognized and prevented. Contact Merletti Gonzales to find out how we can assist.