Our Expressed “National Disgruntlement” and Violence Risk

Some Insights from Research on Threats to Public Figures

Stephen White, Ph.D.
Summer 2010 Newsletter

One of the more valuable presentations this August at the annual meeting of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals (ATAP) was offered by Dr. Mario Scalora of the University of Nebraska and Detective Bill Zimmerman of the United States Capitol Police.   For several years they have been conducting research on threats to members of the US Congress.   One advantage of their research is a substantial database of voluminous communications of concern by a large number of subjects.  What this line of research seeks to determine is, of those individuals who generate communications of concern, which of them may make a “problematic approach,” i.e., a potentially disruptive or threatening movement toward a target, or an actual lethal or near-lethal attack?

Recognizing certain limitations in doing so, their findings may be of use and extrapolated to the assessment of risk to other public figures.  This includes CEOs, senior executives, industry “celebrities,” and more local judicial and political figures – the recipients of flaming communications or internet postings from disgruntled or mentally disordered miscreants, as well as those who may just be “down on their luck” in our recession economy.

Among the findings of Scalora and Zimmerman:

  • current trends show an increase in threatening language across all modalities of communication (emails, internet postings, letters, phone calls);
  • increased threatening email and other electronic activity;
  • more intense politically driven activity and rhetoric;
  • more extremist language from a range of domestic and transnational sources;
  • a significant presence of persons with probable mental illness.

I am not surprised by these findings, based on my current case work – there is an increase in the level of communicated discontent and it is becoming more extremely expressed.  But do these trends by themselves also indicate an increase in violence risk?  No – according to Scalora and Zimmerman: you need to look at the overall behavior of the individual, whether they show an intensity of effort, an intensity of focus on either the target or an issue, and whether their pattern of communication is escalating.

Those who eventually became “problematic approachers” were more inclined to:

  • use multiple contact methods;
  • display an intensity of focus;
  • make more contacts;
  • make demands;
  • mention their stressors;
  • focus on their personal themes;
  • express their intent to approach.

Examining the content of communications, risk factors for approach included:

  • personalized motives (for example, requesting help from a congressman to get a relative a visa);
  • mental illness symptoms, particularly those indicating a threat to self or a lack of bodily or personal control (e.g., a subject with delusions that government officials are damaging his body with a dangerous laser instrument);
  • expressed intent to approach (“I’ll be seeing you when you’re in town, Senator.”)
  • language tied to the above content that violence is justified as a response – the old stand-by.

What about threatening language?  As we know, threats per se are typically not very reliable predictors of who poses an actual risk of violence.  But it depends on the population and, as usual the context and presence of other risk factors.  Scalora and Zimmerman found that threats to public figures should be taken more seriously if the subject is severely mentally ill, or if the threats emerge as part of a series of contacts or with a history of prior problematic approaches.

Doesn’t this all make sense to those of us who engage in threat assessment and threat management?  The risk factors are not dissimilar to those for workplace or campus targeted violence.  Case data must be examined in its totality, as much of it as we can reasonably obtain.  Cases often start with communications revealing anger, desperation, recent significant losses or setbacks, a strong sense of being wronged, and perhaps actual threats.  We then look at the overall context in forming opinions and action plans.  Much of what is originally communicated raises concern to the untrained eye, especially if it also includes or leads to malicious or provocative behavior.  But most communicators are “false positives” – troubled and troublesome indeed, but not posing a risk of harm to others or self.  This finding, however, does not diminish the need to monitor, de-escalate, and to redirect subjects when possible to viable mental health and other resources.

The findings of Scalora and Zimmerman are also consistent with the serious research underway by my colleague and WAVR-21 co-developer, Dr. Reid Meloy, who also presented at ATAP on this subject.  His recent analysis of six public figure studies, soon to be published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, revealed that problematic approachers were:

  • more likely to exhibit serious mental illness;
  • engage in multiple means of communication;
  • involve multiple contacts or targets; and
  • incorporate requests for help into their communications;
  • and less likely to use threatening or antagonistic language, except in those cases involving security breaches.

Public figure problematic approachers have different motivations for their actions, but in common they share fixations – intense pathological preoccupations with a person, idea, activity, or cause, including a strong personal grievance or quest for justice.  Research attempts to better define who will be on an actual behavioral pathway to violence – a concept central to our work in assessing and preventing targeted violence.

Research to develop more refined classifications of perpetrators and “individuals of concern” may seem irrelevant for case management operational decisions, but they are not.  They increase our efficiency and wisdom when choosing interventions.  When you go to your doctor with a persistent cough it makes a big difference if he tells you it’s “just a virus going around,” versus pneumonia, emphysema, or lung cancer.

And yet we must be very thoughtful and careful when applying large group data to an individual subject, because membership in a class does not always imply predictive accuracy in an individual case with its unique mix of relevant risk and violence-buffering factors.

Our work is unfortunately increasingly necessary, and ultimately humbling.  That’s why we always add this reminder, “When in doubt, confer.”