Missteps and Omissions in Threat Assessment Practice

Stephen White, Ph.D.
Winter, 2022

On March 8th and 9th Reid Meloy and I will conduct our annual two-day WAVR-21 training, open to threat assessment practitioners across all disciplines. Please see the adjoining reminder in this newsletter for more details. We are excited to see the robust response in registrations, both in person and virtually.

Among the issues we address in our workshops, either directly or through case discussions, are common protocol missteps that employers and administrators are prone to make. There are, as well, program omissions that hinder effective case management. In this feature, instead of discussing a specific violence risk topic, recent research, or recommended “do’s,” I would like to identify in brief what I see as the most significant errors or stumbling blocks to effective threat management practice in organizational settings. To many who read this, the list may seem obvious.

So why go to the effort? Because after all that we have learned since the 1980s when workplace, campus, and public shootings made their first boot print in western cultures, and which have only increased in frequency since then, these “don’ts” still commonly occur.

The Hasty Termination: This is number one. Management’s response to an employee’s communicated threat or fear-inducing behavior is to summarily terminate him. Anxiety within leadership may be intense. The legal and ethical obligation to protect the workforce (and the brand) is acknowledged. The well-intentioned rationale is, “We have an obligation to protect our organization, so removing the individual permanently and quickly is both required and prudent. He violated our policy. What’s more to discuss?”

Superficial Risk Assessment: This one is usually coupled with the hasty termination and everything else on this list. “He’s angry, owns firearms, makes threats, disrupts our workplace, is irrational, failed his performance improvement plan, has run-ins with the police, and we all agree he could be violent. What more would we need to know? Just get the protective order and have extra security for a while.” Too infrequently considered is requesting the employee to participate in a face-to-face threat assessment interview with a qualified in-house specialist or an external expert prior to any final actions.

Disciplinary Drift: In discussions about “what should we do about what we know,” the tendency is to conflate threat assessment or protective investigations (“Does he pose a threat and how can we mitigate any risk?) with misconduct investigations and outcomes. This is the issue of “I treat most everything like a nail because my customary tool is a hammer.” Managers and multi-disciplinary teams drift into the illusion that disciplinary steps are risk management interventions. That’s what they know.

Lack of Appreciation for Unintended Consequences: Inherently, any action taken to mitigate risk can have three possible outcomes. It can suppress aggression; it can have no effect on whether or not an individual will act violently; or it can make things worse, and in a variety of ways. There is a menu of options, but no 1–2–3 cookbook.

Untapped Information Silos: Risk-relevant, reasonably knowable information, especially through collateral interviews, is insufficiently pursued by investigators. Inquiries do not specifically address the presence and degree of known risk factors and protective factors.

Failure to conduct an in-depth, respectful inquiry and collaboration with employees targeted by outsider intimate partners or stalkers: In most cases the target is a woman, and she is an expert on everything about him. She will tell you if she trusts you, you are not judgmental, and you assure her that her job is safe. There’s a lot more to it than, “We can escort you to your car.” Transferring her to another building will not deter someone who is intent on attacking her, and the manager who inherits her is not going to be pleased with your explanation as to why she is being moved.

Allowing Bullies to Rule the Roost: By definition bullying can only exist where it is enabled or ignored, whether it takes the form of fear of physical harm, reputational attack, or hindrance to career advancement. The damage to individuals, groups, morale, and productivity is greatly underestimated.

Slow Response to Fearful Victims and Onlookers: As I often say, “when people are afraid, something is wrong,” objectively justified or not. The longer you take to investigate a concern, the more people’s nerves will be fried. You will run into a buzz saw of anger the later you take to address it.

Insufficient or Problematic Multidisciplinary Collaboration: In the worst cases, difficulties will ensue if HR is overly concerned that risk-relevant information should not be shared with security and threat assessors. Security may think that violence prevention is all about hardball and leaving it to them. Attorneys may be overly prone to pursue protective orders as the response to most individuals who raise concern. The two underlying issues that account for such obstacles are inadequate knowledge about targeted violence and case dynamics in operational contexts, and individual participants who don’t value collaboration. An overly competitive organizational culture can also inhibit collaboration.

The Team is Not Connected to a Threat Assessment Expert: There’s a lot to know about all this. The great news is the considerable knowledge gained in the last three and a half decades, now available to the upcoming generation of threat assessment practitioners. But it takes time to develop expertise, and the stakes are high. Some teams are “a team in name only.” The members look around the table (or the Zoom screen these days) to see who appears to have more confidence in their opinions than others. The mantra should be, “When in doubt, confer,” for all practitioners, including this one. Discussing your cases with trusted experts is the best way to accelerate learning.

No Program “Czar”: More organizations are recognizing that maintaining an adequate violence prevention program is a full-time job, requiring someone with a variety of skills, especially a high degree of knowledge about threat assessment, a passion for addressing the issues, and the gumption to press the agenda for evidence-based protocols. But not enough organizations have made this commitment.  

Inadequately Trained Triage Specialists: This is more of an emerging and urgent need,  given the growth of violent extremism. However, the issue is hardly new for large corporations whose business relies on interfacing with the Internet and thus attracts millions of customers, or for public figures exposed to throngs of admirers but also to disgruntled constituents and partisan attackers. The volume of threatening communications has exploded exponentially, expanding the already existing “haystack” of vitriolic noise. Incoming data must be sorted efficiently and effectively so as to not miss the potential true positives, while minimizing over-reactions to the vast majority of true negatives – the “nothing burgers.” In our workshop we will discuss more recent research identifying the risk factors and warning behaviors to look for that may signal a potential problematic approach or violent attack.

I could go on, and likely you could too! As you can see, I did not, for the most part, offer corrections to overcome these negative tendencies. We do that in our workshops. The thread weaving through all these “pain points” is the importance and value of threat assessment – an objective, data-driven, collaborative and flexible endeavor. The more we know about an individual of concern, especially his or her motives or mental phenomena driving the behaviors of concern, the degree of felt humiliation (or suffering) he or she is harboring, and the interpersonal context or “stage” where the issue is unfolding, the better able are we to opine on what are the most prudent and strategic actions to take at any given time. There are crises that demand immediate security and/or law enforcement responses. In the vast majority of cases, however, there is time to slow down, gather information as promptly as possible, and develop a fuller understanding of the individual and the situation visà-vis a risk of violent harm.