Proper Questions, Informed Decisions
Stephen G. White, Ph.D.
Most universities of any size now have threat assessment teams, mandated to assess, manage, and monitor individuals and scenarios of concern. “Best practices” include multi-disciplinary members, trained in the basics of targeted violence, and linked to expert resources as necessary. In our newsletter features we usually discuss a specific risk topic, or a high profile case, but in all efforts to assure campus safety, process matters. In fact, process matters significantly. Although campus threat assessment teams will promptly convene for an urgent matter, they otherwise usually meet on a weekly or twice a month basis, to review the most concerning or complex ongoing cases. What contributes to effective meetings?
Establish a threat assessment “mind-set”
This may sound obvious, but a common issue is not specifically looking at case information through the lens and goals of threat assessment. Developing this perspective and skill does take time, is gained through repeated case experience, and learning from more experienced team members and professionals. The Governor’s Review Panel investigating the Virginia Tech tragedy of 2007 concluded that campus officials and providers were “passive” at crucial turning points; no one “connected the dots” as the student traversed his pathway to violence, and guidance from a threat assessment professional was lacking. Such is the worst case scenario.
Although aware of the necessity to avoid these fatal errors, meeting agendas in every day practice may stray into a simple recounting of recent case information. Discussions of disciplinary, academic, or police matters – relevant for sure – may not lead to an articulated working hypothesis of the “level of concern” posed by an individual subject.
- The first task is to understand the possible causes and meaning of the subject’s current behavior – whether or not it suggests risk – which then informs the rationale for the team’s responses, as well as its recommendations to other stakeholders.
- The second task is to assess the impact on a subject of interventions, and actions by various authorities or other parties. If someone is suspended, arrested, hospitalized, confronted, accommodated, etc, – what’s the impact on him vis à vis risk?
Threat assessment or a protective investigation addresses whether someone poses a threat. It may run parallel to but is distinct from a misconduct investigation (did someone make a threat or otherwise violate campus policy?), or a criminal investigation (did the subject break the law?).
Other pitfalls: Apprehension escalating to fear among less experienced members may override a rational, objective evaluation of risk. The resulting hasty decisions may lead to unintended consequences. Team members’ attention may be divided by their many other obligations. At times teams jump to conclusions and decisions without sufficiently tapping relevant data sources that would better inform their choice of options – additional or more in-depth collateral interviews, a broader investigation of social media activity, and when appropriate and safe, a risk-screening interview with the subject per se. Teams must also recognize their susceptibility to bias in decision-making:
- Foresight bias (“I just know he’s going to do it. I can feel it.”),
- Availability bias (“There was an attack at another campus last week. These things happen all the time.”), and
- Confirmatory bias (“He could never do it. Look at how popular and successful he is.”).
Weigh both risk and protective factors
There are two contrary tracks to consider in screening and assessing a case: risk factors versus protective factors. They represent a balancing point in ongoing threat assessment, and perhaps reflect the ambivalence of an individual of concern:
- What are the indicators suggesting the person is a.) spinning down, and that violence would solve a problem, exact revenge, or end pain for him; and/or b.) that violence would achieve sought-after, alluring notoriety and flip the status-quo power structure?
- By contrast, what are the various pre-existing and every day indicators that – although troubled, angry, aggrieved, and bearing pain, etc. – the individual is, after all, positively engaged in life? However “strange”, disgruntled, or facing setbacks, is sufficient underlying resilience present? Do these trump any thought of or intent to harm?
Research has shown that evaluators tend to overestimate risk if they do not include an assessment of protective factors. In each case the factors are integrated and weighed. Think about the individual’s overall life circumstances, and consider the evidence for these further general questions:
- How crucial are the stakes for him?
- Is he willing to pay the price – of his life or freedom – to prevail, to be darkly grand, to bring down vengeance on envied, hated others, real or symbolic?
- Is his whole identity at risk to be “ruined” by a potential triggering event?
- Is the individual delusional or paranoid and what and how much do these cognitions appear to direct his behavior?
- Is he seeking, accepting, or abandoning the appropriate kind of help for his problems?
- Could what he wants be accomplished in some reasonable manner?
How does a team know when to heighten its attention?
The most serious cases are often easily identifiable – clear evidence of a motive for and commitment to act violently, accompanied by the subject’s decision to relinquish his own life or freedom, and especially accompanied by preparatory behaviors for an attack. In reality most cases brought forward are about unruly, angry, intimidating, intrusive behavior – by rigid, unreasonable and entitled individuals, perhaps with some paranoid trends, prone to distortions and baffling defenses. Some are misunderstood, awkward and insensitive, and indeed may evoke our empathy for the embattled, marginalized, or troubled life they are enduring. Complexities of character lie beneath and context is always relevant. To choose violence, at least intended targeted violence, is a very serious decision, and only a few who come to attention seriously contemplate it. Nevertheless vigilance and “due diligence” is a necessity.
Consider the perspective of an outside expert
Although formal risk assessments conducted by professionals is an option, an expert may also assist a team with its process. A threat assessment professional periodically attending team meetings promotes the desired mind-set and enhances learning. Such an expert should be someone with sound knowledge of the empirical basis for violence risk factors, the analytic ability and the clinical judgment to connect the available data dots in a meaningful way; and who then may offer viable and safe intervention alternatives. Another high-value exercise is after-the-fact technical debriefings of the organization’s cases, reviewing the team’s proceedings, opinions reached, and actions taken.
Resources for threat assessment
The above questions provide a general framework for team meeting inquiries and focus. The devil is in the details. Comprehensive lists of assessment questions are available to keep teams on track with their primary purpose. Various sources include the seminal work in the 1990s by the US Secret Service behavioral scientists, the contributions of Gene Deisinger, Marissa Randazzo and their colleagues in their Handbook for Campus Threat Assessment and Management Teams, and the WAVR-21 (Workplace Assessment of Violence Risk), the structured professional judgment guide developed by myself and Reid Meloy. More recent resources include The International Handbook of Threat Assessment, edited by Reid Meloy and Jens Hoffman.
Organizational threat assessment practice is indeed broad-based and multi-disciplinary. Team contributors need to incorporate a threat assessment mind set into the professional knowledge and judgment they bring to the proceedings from their individual disciplines, whether those be legal, law enforcement, judicial affairs, mental health or human resources. “Group think” has many advantages and can help to check individual denial and blind spots. A line distinguishing experts from non-experts is not always clear. When doubt exists about the way forward it is prudent to invite those more experienced into the decision-making arena. For all of us in the practice of threat assessment, the learning never ends. We are looked to now, more than ever, for help and guidance.