Jeff Nolan, Editor
Dinse, Knapp & McAndrew, P.C., Burlington
by Jeff Nolan, with contributions from Marisa Randazzo, PhD, and Gene Deisinger, PhD
Hardly a week goes by without another incident of targeted violence at a workplace, public venue, or school in the United States. Some have occurred in other parts of the country: Aurora, Colorado; Las Vegas, Nevada; Orlando, and Parkland, Florida; San Bernardino, California; and Sandy Hook, Connecticut. Some have occurred closer to home: In 2006, according to news reports, a Vermont man killed his ex-girlfriend’s mother at her home the day after the ex-girlfriend ended their abusive relationship, and then he went to the school where the ex-girlfriend worked as a teacher. He didn’t find her there, but he shot and killed a woman who was her friend and fellow teacher, and shot and wounded two other school employees before attempting suicide.
Of course, Vermonters’ attention is currently focused on the case of a young Vermont man who recently told police of his detailed plans to commit an attack on his former high school in Fair Haven. Fortunately, an acquaintance alerted police to the man’s plans, potentially averting a horrible tragedy. In response, the Vermont Legislature and Governor Phil Scott have worked together to pass unprecedented gun control and other protective legislation. In related news, the 19th anniversary of the attack at Columbine High School was observed in April, and students in Vermont and around the country continue to advocate for legislative reform.
Guns are obviously a common feature in each of these incidents or near incidents, but another common feature tends to get considerably less media coverage: Most of the shootings were preceded by a period in which the shooter carefully planned the attack and acquired weapons. Because we know that, we should be doing everything we can reasonably do to identify potential threats and intervene to prevent violence at the earliest possible stage. A process called threat assessment and management (TAM) is designed to do exactly that.
A little background
In an article published in the September 2011 issue of Vermont Employment Law Letter, I offered some suggestions to help employers perform an initial audit of their violence prevention efforts, introduced the concept of implementing TAM practices in the workplace, and set the stage for more detailed coverage of these issues in future articles (see “Smart, careful planning can reduce the threat of workplace violence” on pg. 1 of that issue).
In another article, I wrote about the October 2011 publication of an American National Standard on Workplace Violence Prevention and Intervention (WVPI Standard) by ASIS International and SHRM. That article summarized the WVPI Standard’s suggestions on developing a strong workplace violence prevention program, including a workplace TAM team (see “A New Year’s resolution worth keeping: workplace violence prevention” on pg. 1 of our December 2011 issue). This article assumes the reader’s familiarity with those previous articles.
As we have outlined in previous articles, you should initially (1) identify the members of your TAM team, (2) give it a name that works for your organization, (3) plan how you will let employees know the team exists, and (4) determine how you will train employees to report behavior or comments that suggest someone poses a risk to himself or others to a member of the team ASAP, without fear of retaliation. In conjunction with those steps, you will need to plan, in general terms, how the TAM team will respond to reports it receives.
Again, research has shown that perpetrators of serious targeted violence don’t just “snap.” Certainly, impulsive affective violence sometimes does occur in heated situations, but research and analysis have shown that targeted attacks more commonly involve advance planning by the perpetrator. Most attackers consider, plan, and prepare before engaging in violent behavior. That was true of the attacks in Aurora, Las Vegas, Orlando, Parkland, San Bernardino, and Sandy Hook. Similarly, a police affidavit supporting charges filed in connection with the Fair Haven case contains chilling details about the suspect’s meticulous planning of how he would finance his purchase of weapons and ammunition, murder the school resource police officer, carry out the attack, and then commit suicide. Suicide is also a common thread in targeted attacks: Research has shown that most perpetrators are suicidal, or at a point of desperation, before the attacks.
The research has implications for employers’ prevention efforts: Because information about a person’s ideas and plans to cause harm can be observed or discovered in advance, incidents of workplace violence can be prevented in some cases. The problem is, the available information is likely to be scattered, and “leakage” of clues may occur by various means. For example, employees of concern may talk with coworkers about their grievances, suggest that violence is a reasonable response to their circumstances, and even inform others of their acquisition of weapons and other planning steps. Therefore, your TAM team needs to act quickly after receiving an initial report from a concerned employee, determine if someone else has a piece of the puzzle, and then assemble the information to see what picture emerges. The TAM process helps structure the way in which the team does that work.
This article focuses generally on steps recommended by two sources: Dr. Marisa Randazzo and Dr. Gene Deisinger, and the ASIS/SHRM WVPI Standard. Randazzo and Deisinger outline their steps in their “Handbook for Campus Threat Assessment & Management Teams” (referred to throughout this article as the “TAM Handbook” and available at http://sigmatma.com/about/ourbooks/). Significantly, the TAM Handbook was recommended as a resource in “A Risk Analysis Standard for Natural and Man-Made Hazards to Higher Education Institutions,” published by the ASME Innovative Technologies Institute, LLC, and approved by the American National Standards Institute in 2010. While the TAM Handbook was written primarily for a higher education audience, its concepts are easily transferable to noneducational workplaces, particularly because it was intended to be used to assess potential threats posed by employees as well as students.
First things first: Is the situation an emergency?
The TAM Handbook and the WVPI Standard are consistent in recommending that a TAM team’s or management employee’s first duty after receiving information about suspicious behavior is to decide quickly whether there’s an imminent threat or emergency. Because of the urgency involved, that determination will have to be made based on readily available information, such as the initial report and any background information members of the team or other sources close to the situation have. If the situation is deemed an emergency, then law enforcement needs to be contacted and crisis management/physical safety measures must be implemented immediately.
The TAM team will eventually need to conduct a full threat assessment inquiry and take appropriate measures if the potential perpetrator is released from custody, but in an emergency or imminent threat situation, the team’s primary course of action is to notify law enforcement to ensure the situation is contained. Once the immediate risk is contained, the team can proceed with the more advanced threat assessment steps outlined below, tailored to the circumstances.
In anticipation of the potential need to involve law enforcement, you should develop or enhance your relationship with local law enforcement agencies. Let those agencies know that you are adopting a TAM process, and work with them to identify ways in which you can best interact in emergent and nonemergent (but concerning) situations. It’s important to do this as soon as possible, and not wait until a troubling situation has already arisen, because advance planning and relationship building can create trust and save valuable time when it may count most.
Second step: Perform initial data gathering and risk screening
If the TAM team determines there’s no emergency or imminent threat, it should move on to initial data gathering and risk screening. Those tasks should also be performed when the person of concern has been removed from the workplace by law enforcement through a criminal law or involuntary hospitalization process if it appears that he will be released from custody in the near future. The WVPI Standard distinguishes this step by the TAM team from “a more elaborate process performed by specifically qualified [threat assessment] personnel.” The purpose of the data gathering and risk screening is to “assist the [TAM team] in determining the general urgency of a situation and appropriate initial actions to take.”
The TAM team should seek out information from all available resources and people who may be familiar with the person of concern. This information-seeking process is crucial and distinguishes the TAM team’s work from less active HR-related workplace functions. According to the WVPI Standard, sources of initial information can include:
- Employees who reported the concerning behavior or are potential targets of the behavior;
- Current and former supervisors of an employee who is the person of concern, the HR professional most closely associated with the employee, the employee’s personnel file, and his workplace computer, e-mail account, and other electronic communications and Internet usage history (Hopefully, you have a clear policy informing employees that they have no expectation of privacy in their workplace computer activity.); • All communications by the employee that have generated concern;
- All communications received from a third party who is the person of concern as well as a criminal background check, if possible (which can be performed on anyone in Vermont through the Vermont Criminal Information Center); and
- Publicly available information about the person of concern, such as information found on Google, Facebook, and YouTube.
The TAM team’s review and analysis of social media activity has become even more crucial and potentially fruitful since the WVPI Standard was published in 2011 because the use of social media has obviously increased rapidly in the intervening period. The TAM team should work with your IT professionals ahead of time to understand how to best navigate likely sites of interest, so they can move quickly and efficiently if a threat assessment becomes necessary.
The WVPI Standard cautions that “a formal violence risk assessment shall be conducted solely by specifically qualified and credentialed personnel or outside consultants.” However, when doing the initial data gathering, a TAM team could perform its preliminary triage work and gain some insight into whether an increased risk of violence may be present by focusing on certain key questions, including:
- What appears to be motivating the person to make the concerning statements or take the concerning actions?
- What has the person communicated about her intentions? • What interest, if any, has the person shown in violence or its justification, violent perpetrators, weapons, or extremist groups?
- Has the person engaged in planning and preparation for violence, such as approaching a target or site, breaching security, or monitoring, harassing, or stalking a target?
- Does the person have a known or suspected history of a mental illness or substance abuse? Has the person exhibited symptoms of paranoia, delusions, hallucinations, extreme agitation, despondency, or suicidal tendencies (especially with any violent content)? Has he ever acted on those beliefs?
- Is there any evidence of serious oppositional or counterproductive attitudes or behavior in the workplace (e.g., unjustified blaming of others, a strong sense of entitlement, defensiveness, or intolerance of others’ rights)?
- How does the person manifest her anger, and how focused is that anger on individuals in the workplace?
- Has the person experienced (or is he likely to soon experience) any serious personal or financial stressors (e.g., loss of his job or status, divorce, a custody dispute, or a death in the family)? Does he show poor coping skills in reaction to those stressors?
- What is the person’s known history of serious interpersonal conflict, violence, or other criminal conduct in domestic or other settings?
- Is there evidence of any organizational, supervisory, or workplace problems that have contributed to or provoked the behavior/statements of concern, and how do those problems influence the individual’s perception of her circumstances?
The WVPI Standard also includes key questions aimed at disclosing factors that may lower or mitigate the risk of violence, such as:
- Does the person of concern have valued family or other positive personal attachments?
- Has the person expressed genuine remorse for making threats or engaging in the concerning behavior?
- Has the person responded positively to defusing or limit-setting efforts by others?
- Has the person engaged in appropriate problem solving or sought professional treatment or legal recourse as a way to manage a stressful situation?
- What services have been offered to the individual and accessed positively?
The WVPI Standard recognizes that answers to many of these questions may not be available initially or at all, so they should serve as suggested areas of inquiry when practical rather than a “punch list” that must be completed exhaustively in every case. The standard also cautions that the TAM team should consult with legal counsel during the information-gathering process to ensure compliance with applicable laws (and, I will add, employer policies).
Third step: Evaluate information from the initial risk screening
The WVPI Standard states that after the TAM team gathers the initial information, it should evaluate the information from a lay perspective. Questions asked at this point should include:
- Is the concern about potential violence unwarranted, meaning the individual’s behavior can be handled within normal HR, disciplinary, or employee relations protocols rather than through a TAM process?
- Is some concern about violence warranted, but not significant or urgent, so that the TAM team can continue with additional fact gathering and its incident management processes?
- Is the concern about violence high enough that consulting law enforcement personnel or a violence risk assessment professional warranted?
If the team concludes that the situation falls within categories (2) or (3), it should retain a connection to the case and initiate case/threat management efforts.
Fourth step: Begin formal threat assessment/threat management process
Very high-functioning TAM teams with access to in-house expertise in professional threat assessment may view the assessment and management activities as separate, but few Vermont employers will have that capacity. For the majority of employers, it’s fair to say that if an in-house TAM team determines that a situation falls somewhere between categories (2) and (3), the employer should engage a qualified threat assessment professional and legal counsel to guide its threat management efforts.
The WVPI Standard suggests that “immediate or early consultation with a qualified violence risk assessment professional is particularly advised when the [TAM team] feels uncertain in its ability to accurately evaluate risk even in a general or gross fashion.” The threat assessment professional will determine whether a formal threat assessment process is warranted, and the TAM team will work with the professional and legal counsel to gather information as necessary and appropriate.
In terms of threat management, the WVPI Standard suggests that in addition to retaining a threat assessment professional and legal counsel, the TAM team can:
- Continue or expand its information collection efforts.
- Assess the need for additional physical security.
- Initiate coordination with local law enforcement.
- Work with HR to implement employment actions such as discipline, suspension, termination, referral to an employee assistance program (EAP), or administrative leave (while recognizing that termination alone doesn’t guarantee safety and may actually increase the risk of violence).
- When the person of concern is an employee who appears to be suffering from a mental illness, consult with legal counsel to determine the organization’s obligations and rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—an issue that will be discussed in a later article.
- When the person of concern is a third party, consider professional surveillance efforts, within legal parameters.
- Work with counsel to initiate appropriate legal action (such as a restraining order, protective order, or no-trespass notice) if, after careful evaluation and consultation with a threat assessment professional, it is determined that such action will actually enhance, rather than diminish, the overall threat management efforts. If not well conceived, legal action can precipitate rather than minimize threatening behavior.
The TAM Handbook similarly states that in the threat management phase, the TAM team should develop, implement, monitor, and document a plan to intervene and reduce the threat. The plan should be customized to address the person of concern and the situation with the best resources available or accessible to the team and the organization. The goal of a threat management plan is to help shift the person of concern away from thoughts and plans for violence/suicide and get him help with addressing his problems.
Randazzo and Deisinger note that threat management plans can include any of the following options, as well as others dictated by the situation and resources:
- Monitor the situation for further developments.
- Engage with the person of concern to deescalate the situation.
- Involve an ally or trusted friend to monitor the person of concern.
- Notify the person’s family.
- Seek help from law enforcement.
- Undertake disciplinary review and action.
- Implement a behavioral contract.
- Suggest voluntary referral for mental health evaluation and/or treatment.
- Mandate a psychological assessment.
- Require involuntary hospitalization for evaluation and/or treatment. (This is difficult to obtain in Vermont, but legal counsel and/or law enforcement can be consulted on the issue.)
- Initiate leave or separation from employment (voluntary or involuntary).
- Modify the environment to mitigate the impact of contributory factors.
- Collaborate with the identified target/victim to decrease her vulnerability.
- Monitor and prepare for the impact of likely precipitating events.
The TAM Handbook emphasizes that once the TAM team has created a threat management plan, it’s just as important to document the plan, implement it, and monitor how well it is working—to make sure it’s having the intended effect and not inadvertently making the situation worse. Consulting a threat assessment professional and legal counsel during the threat management phase is therefore advised.
It’s important to note that a person can continue to pose a threat even after he is no longer connected with the organization. For instance, the suspect in the Fair Haven case left Fair Haven High School for another school but still continued to pose a threat. The TAM Handbook states that the TAM team should continue to monitor the plan and modify it as needed for as long as the person/situation reasonably poses a threat. It may be necessary for the TAM team to continue to refer the person of concern to necessary resources or take other follow- up steps as the situation and level of concern dictate.
As it considers the factors that may affect the person’s behavior in the short, mid, and long term, the TAM team should anticipate the impact of future precipitating events that could prompt the person to become an increased threat—i.e., important personal dates or anniversaries, termination of benefits, formal termination of employment, or the occurrence or anniversary of well publicized targeted attacks elsewhere. The team should develop contingency plans and take steps to reduce or mitigate the anticipated threats.
Fifth step: Close and document the case
The TAM Handbook emphasizes that cases handled by a TAM team generally remain open until the person of concern no longer appears to pose a threat. That may be well beyond when mental health services are completed or a criminal case is closed (or even dismissed, as your internal process shouldn’t depend on the outcome of the criminal justice system). Whether the case remains open or is closed, the TAM team should document how it handled the case, including the report that first came to the team’s attention, the information the team gathered, its evaluation of the information, the case management plan it developed and implemented (if necessary), and any reevaluations or monitoring after its initial evaluation and case management efforts. Such documentation is very sensitive given the potential risks involved, so the TAM team should work with legal counsel.
I hope this outline of the TAM process provides a useful perspective on how a TAM team can function internally and how it can determine when to seek the assistance of outside resources. Of course, training on TAM issues is available, so you can determine for yourself how highly you want your team to function and obtain TAM training at a level that works in your particular circumstances.
The bottom line is, the general TAM process should be in place at every workplace so the team can be mobilized quickly when necessary. The team should at least have enough training and previous work experience to understand the roles and basic functions team members will perform in the event of an emergency. Obviously, that advance work should be done long before a critical incident occurs.
Unfortunately, recent events nationally and locally emphasize how important it is for all employers, even employers in our relatively peaceful state, to do what you reasonably can to prevent workplace violence. TAM teams should be seen as a crucial component of an overall workplace violence prevention system and created, trained, and supported accordingly.
This article updates a 2015 article to provide information about recent events and a detailed outline of how the TAM process should operate in most workplace settings. In addition to citing the WVPI Standard’s discussion of the TAM process, I’ve relied on the work of Marisa Randazzo, PhD, and Gene Deisinger, PhD, with whom I work regularly through Sigma Threat Management Associates (www.SigmaTMA.com). Randazzo and Deisinger are threat assessment professionals who practice nationally. Their contributions are gratefully acknowledged.
Jeff Nolan can be reached at email@example.com or 802-864-5751.