Is Workplace or Campus Violence Reactive Anger or Deliberate Planning?: Revisiting a Recurrent Question

J. Reid Meloy, Ph.D.

Fall 2017 Newsletter

Threat assessment and management, the guiding method for the development of the WAVR-21 (Workplace Assessment of Violence Risk), focuses upon targeted violence.  It is violent behavior that is planned in advance, and directed against a specific target, usually following a pathway.  We read about such violence every day through the commercial media, but the history of this mode of violence is quite interesting, and has direct relevance for corporate and educational settings.

The terms italicized above originated with the U.S. Secret Service back in the 1980s.  The agents and behavioral scientists of the USSS faced a dilemma: attacks against Protectees of the Secret Service, such as the President and his family, were extremely rare to begin with.  There have been four assassinations since the founding of the USA almost 250 years ago, yet daily threats abound.  Such acts when they do occur are very low frequency, yet very high intensity, and cannot be predicted with any certainty.  In fact, attempting to predict such planned violence always results in too many false positives, that is, “false alarms” or predictions that are wrong.  The Secret Service needed another model, and the one they adopted was a prevention model—they called it “protective intelligence.”

The prevention model was premised on the discovered fact that virtually all assassinations and attacks on public figures in the US were deliberately planned, and not the result of an impulse in the moment.  They also discovered some other interesting facts: none of these individuals directly warned their target beforehand.  Most of them researched, planned, and prepared for their act, and most of them told a third party of their intent.  These general findings have not changed over the past thirty years of research, including a study of public figure attacks in the US from 1995-2015, conducted by myself and FBI Supervisory Special Agent Molly Amman, and published last year (available at

If we segue from the history of targeted violence to public figures to the threat of violence in the workplace, there is another important finding: Most violence in such settings is not targeted violence, but is instead, violence as a result of reactive anger.  An employee feels intense emotion, usually anger but sometimes fear, reacts suddenly to a perceived threat or insult, and finds himself in trouble – perhaps for throwing something, slamming a door, yelling and voicing threats to coworkers, and less frequently physical contact or an assault.  The latter is the most common kind of violence we see in the workplace; however, it is not the most dangerous. Targeted violence is.

Paralleling the research of the USSS, these probability patterns were observed by early risk assessment professionals, including by Dr. Stephen White, co-developer with me of the WAVR-21, who began to confront workplace and campus violence risk in the mid to late 1980s. Early practitioners in these settings did so with little empirical data to inform their strategies. What emerged was that very few “threat cases” resulted in physical harm, and eventually a baseline of low probability for actual violence became apparent.  However, the research and publications of the USSS in the 1990s was a turning point in the field – the articulation of the targeted violence model that informed a protective intelligence strategy for understanding and responding to threats in various settings.

Targeted violence and such pathway behavior are now fundamental principles that undergird the development of threat assessment teams—from private corporations, through universities and colleges, to public and governmental agencies responsible for a country’s national security.

Although we specifically developed the WAVR-21 to identify, assess, and manage targeted violence, the tool is also helpful in recognizing emotional or reactive violence.  Both kinds of violence have been actively researched for decades, and the field of threat assessment has come a long way since the 1980s. The WAVR-21 V3 Threat Assessment App is the development of a digitized system to help organize contemporary threat assessment teams in their efforts to keep workplaces and campuses safe and to manage troubled or troubling individuals who may be embarking on a pathway to targeted violence.