Threat Assessment Teams
Workplace and School Violence Prevention
By Steve Albrecht, D.B.A.
An angry ex-employee bursts into the lobby of his former employer and yells at the frightened receptionist, “You tell the CEO he’s a dead man. I’ll make sure he never sees his family again!” A woman gets a phone call at work from her estranged husband, who tells her he knows about her new boyfriend, also employed at the same company. “I will kill you both, and I’ll shoot any cop who tries to stop me!” An information technology (IT) director reviews several hundred threatening e-mails from an anonymous source who has not honored a cease-and-desist order from the organization’s attorney. Speaking to his friend, a 15-year-old high school sophomore says that he hired a locksmith to make a spare key to his father’s gun cabinet, just in case he needs to “take care of some people” who have bullied him.
At a minimum, each of these incidents can bring intense fear to a workplace or school campus. Worse, such events can lead to violence resulting in the injuries or deaths of innocents. Further, perpetrators often kill themselves or die as a result of suicide by cop.1
In response to horrific situations—including shootings and mass murders in workplaces, schools, malls, churches, and government agencies—progressive and forward-thinking public- and private-sector organizations form threat assessment teams (TATs) to help prevent or manage incidents.2 Law enforcement agencies constitute an important part. They can assess the nature and reality of the threats, provide valuable information to the group, and offer a realistic view as to potential solutions. Police serve both an advisory and action-oriented role; they can help with the assessment, start or continue an investigation, or take other appropriate measures, such as making arrests or initiating mental health holds.
NATURE OF THREATS
TATs aim to assess dangerousness, not to predict violence; only the perpetrators ultimately know their intentions. Further, the teams do not rely on profiles when managing cases. They focus on analyzing the contextual behaviors of possible perpetrators and any potential victims they intersect with. Tied to TATs’ concentration on behavior, threat assessment encompasses just a window in time. The team’s depiction of a subject one day could change completely upon receipt of new information the following day. For instance, an angry or depressed man could seem stable until his wife suddenly leaves him. As a result, the TAT may dramatically alter its assessment of his potential for violence.
More than focusing on warning signs or threats alone, assessment involves a unique overall view of changing, relevant, and related behaviors of concern. Experts say that the identification and resolution of threat cases involves early detection of “attack related” behaviors.3 Perpetrators of targeted acts of violence engage in covert and overt behaviors preceding and accompanying their attacks. They consider, plan, prepare, share, and, in some cases, move on to action.
The threat assessment approach does not rely on direct communication of a threat as the primary threshold for an appraisal of risk, protective intervention, or corrective action. Rather, a greater chance exists that third parties (e.g., coworkers, friends, other students, and family), not actual targets, hear threats.4
Like-minded, concerned professionals gathered together in person or via a teleconference can use the power of synergy to find dynamic solutions in a short time. Using TATs changes the dynamics in employee- or student-related threat situations from What do I do? to What do we do? These meetings allow the participants to share ideas, experiences, fears, and concerns in a problem-solving environment. TATs serve five primary functions.
- Information gathering: What does the team know about the threatener and the targets?
- Interviewing: What can TAT personnel learn from anyone personally or professionally connected to the perpetrator and victims?
- Evaluation: What does all of this information mean in terms of threats of violence to people and the organization?
- Decision making: What should the team do now and in the immediate future? Who will take the lead role in managing the subject’s behaviors or actions (e.g., human resources, law enforcement, security, campus police, EAP, mental health clinicians)?
- Follow-up: If the emotional temperature has cooled around this situation, how will the TAT continue to monitor the people and behaviors involved so that it does not reescalate?
Workplace-Based TAT Members
Typical TAT participants (or their designees) fall into two categories. Primary team members are the hands-on decision makers; secondary team members provide insights to the primary TAT personnel.
Primary Team Members
Law enforcement officers assist with reporting, arrest, or prosecution; patrols; criminal database research; and, further, they provide peace of mind. A security director addresses access control issues and implements guards and emergency- or security-related policies and procedures, such as lockdown drills or evacuations. Legal counsel representatives provide suggestions as to labor law concerns, due diligence, and union contracts; more important, they possibly can make TAT meetings part of the attorney-client work-product privilege, allowing for better protection of information derived by the team in case of future litigation.
A human resources (HR) director addresses issues related to discipline or termination, organizational policies and procedures, benefits, and HR-related legal issues (in conjunction with company counsel). Employee assistance program (EAP) or psychological services clinicians provide insight as to the perpetrators’ and victims’ states of mind and the need for fitness-for-duty evaluations, hospitalization, crisis treatment, or police response; if in a treating relationship with the involved individuals, these representatives may need advice as to when to excuse themselves from group discussions. Finally, the employee’s supervisor, although not privy to the contents and length of the entire meetings, should provide specific answers or insights about the perpetrator’s behaviors or any potential targets.
Secondary Team Members
While they may not want to attend TAT meetings, senior managers can streamline certain processes, make strategic decisions, allocate money to hire additional experts, or approve the provision of severance or other benefits (e.g., medical or mental health). Labor-relations personnel can help the team understand the complexities of any contracts or agreements between the organization and the unions. As union representatives also do not want dangerous employees in the workplace, they can provide the TAT with information about the perpetrator-employee and likely targets, as well as feedback about the culture of the workplace. The employee’s supervisor will only attend portions of the meetings to offer suggestions about how to deal with or deter the perpetrator.
The facilities manager can help with concerns about access control, safety and security, or potential problem areas in the facility, such as hiding places, lockers, or hazardous materials. A risk management/safety officer, often in conjunction with the security director, can provide insight into facility protection issues. Some TATs may include an IT representative if the threats originate from cyberspace.
Threat Assessment Team Questions
The following questions can serve as a starting point for the threat assessment team members’ initial discussion about the dangerousness of a current or former employee, student, or outside threatener.
School-Based TAT Members
TATs based on a campus or in a school district may include many of the same professionals or differ slightly. These teams gather together to discuss the troubling or threatening behavior of current or former students or parents, outside criminals (e.g., gang members or pedophiles), or school employees, such as a teacher, counselor, or administrative staff member.
As the top-ranking officials, principals and vice principals can make immediate decisions, as well as consult with district authorities (e.g., the superintendent or a designee). Master teachers may have specific information about classroom behaviors, security concerns, rumors and gossip, threats, parenting issues, or relationship problems that the subject in question may be having with another student. Additional selected teachers can help the TAT by discussing certain problematic classroom conduct issues or potentially dangerous behaviors, especially when considered in the proper context, on the part of the subject. School district attorneys can provide legal support and insight into regulations, such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and union issues involving district employees.
School nurses, although restricted by what they can reveal about a student in their care, possibly can speak in general terms about the climate, culture, or underlying health or behavioral issues on campus. District and on-campus counselors may have specific insights into problem students or employees, although they cannot release certain information because they face the same ethical boundary issues as any other treating professional.
School police and resource officers can provide armed protection, intelligence information, and knowledge of previous problems with the same perpetrator; conduct arrests, prosecutions, and locker searches; implement physical security improvements, such as metal detectors, panic or burglar alarms, and cameras; and help with crisis response plans, including liaison with such mutual aid groups as fire departments, paramedics, other police agencies, or the county sheriff’s department. Campus security personnel can support the efforts of the police and provide intelligence gathering; rumor control; and information about groups or individuals and previous problems, situations, or incidents. Often younger, they may have better rapport with students than campus police officers.
Facilities or maintenance directors can help with access control improvements, security, and evacuation plans and provide support to any responding police or fire agencies. Although limitations exist, selected parents and students can provide knowledge and insight into the subject and problematic behaviors, but they should not attend an entire TAT meeting.
As a starting point, TAT members can ask a series of questions to evaluate the dangerousness of a threatening current or former employee, student, or other individual. Also, the presence of certain high-risk indicators can give TAT personnel reason for concern.
- Psychotic, schizophrenic, bipolar, or paranoid personality disorders
- Substance abuse, especially alcohol, pain medication, or stimulant drugs
- Past use of violence or weapons to solve problems
- Frequent blaming behavior
- Severe depression
- Evidence of highly antisocial behavior (e.g., police contacts, civil order violations, trespassing at work or on campus)
- Previous sexual intimacy between the victim and the suspect
- No regard for his or her own life or the lives of others
PROOF OF SUCCESS
Does the use of threat assessment tools, strategies, and responses lower the possibility of violence by working so well that they deter a potentially violent perpetrator without anyone ever knowing? This begs the question, How can a negative be proven? In other words, silence often rewards successful vigilance in countering potential violence. The bad guy returns home, goes away, or decides that the evil plan is not worth the risk. The truth is, no one really knows why someone chooses to use violence or why that person is deterred.
In August 1999, neo-Nazi Buford Furrow shot and killed a Filipino letter carrier simply because he was not white and then entered a Los Angeles-area Jewish Community Center where he fired over 70 shots with a submachine gun. He wounded three adults and three children during his rampage. After his arrest, he revealed that he had planned to shoot people at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles but was deterred because he felt it had too much security in place. So, what proof exists that these ideas, suggestions, discussions, plans, actions, and implementations have worked? Success equals peace.
Unfortunately, as the news media highlights, disturbing incidents can happen at organizations and campuses anywhere. Such violent events result in unspeakable fear, injury, or death.
The wave of the future for violence prevention is a group of stakeholders with the appropriate expertise meeting on a regular or as-needed basis to address internal or external threats to a workplace or school. Threat assessment teams serve this purpose and, more important, help keep employees and students safe.
1 For additional information, see Anthony J. Pinizzotto, Edward F. Davis, and Charles E. Miller III, “Suicide by Cop: Defining a Devastating Dilemma,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, February 2005, 8-20.
2 For additional information, see Mario Scalora, Andre Simons, and Shawn VanSlyke, “Campus Safety: Assessing and Managing Threats,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, February 2010, 1-10.
3 U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, Workplace Violence: Issues in Response, available at http://www.fbi.gov/publications/violence.pdf; Frederick Calhoun, Hunters and Howlers: Threats and Assaults Against Judicial Officials in the United States, 1789-1993 (Darby, PA: Diane Publishing Co., 2000); and http://www.secretservice.gov/ntac.shtml.
Sources for Additional Information
Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, Workplace Violence: Issues in Response, available at http://www.fbi.gov/publications/violence.pdf.
Frederick Calhoun, Hunters and Howlers: Threats and Assaults Against Judicial Officials in the United States, 1789-1993 (Darby, PA: Diane Publishing Co., 2000)
Frederick Calhoun and Stephen Weston, Threat Assessment and Management Strategies: Identifying the Howlers and Hunters (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2009)
National Threat Assessment Center website: http://www.secretservice.gov/ntac.shtml.