Let’s Address the Issue of #ViolencePrevention,” Part 2

“Profiling,” does it tell us who the next shooter will be?  There is no question that profiling offers great value as we narrow down the potential for violence; but is it a reliable predictor of who will be our next shooter?  It is natural that Americans want to understand why the Navy Yard Shooting took place and how can we prevent future attacks like this one.

In a continuing attempt to determine what Aaron Alexis’ (the Navy Yard Shooter) motives were, an article in the LA Times titled “Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis left messages,” states: 

The messages were carved by either a knife or some other instrument into the wooden stock of the Remington 870 Express shotgun that Alexis bought two days before the shooting, the official said. “The first one (Better Off This Way) seems to have him saying he wanted to kill fellow workers or maybe expected to die himself,” the official said.

“He was a loner,” said the official, who was reading from reports on the case but spoke anonymously because the investigation is continuing. “Who knows what was in his mind? He told people he was crazy.”

Well, if you accept my first premise that “Most people who are violent do not have a mental illness, and most people who have mental illness are not violent.” Although Mental Health assessments are an extremely important asset, we have found that identifying a “disorder” is not typically a reliable predictor as to whom the next shooter will be.

“He was a loner,” is another clue but does this kind of clue help us identify our next shooter.  Can we use his apparent mental disorder to “profile” him as our next shooter? 

I ask that you consider the logic of my next statement; I have been criticized by some in security for making it. I wish to get to the truth, so I would encourage your considered comments and/or suggestions.  What does profiling do?  It tells us that within a certain group of people there is a higher probability of a shooter; it does not tell us who the next shooter is!  This statement is confirmed when we consider one of the most thorough studies on this topic, the “Safe School Initiative,” a combined effort of the US Secret Service and the US Department of Education; which states, “There is no accurate or useful profile of the school shooter … or for assessing the risk that a particular student may pose for school based targeted violence.” Does this mean that we should disregard profiling information? Of course not!  If there is a higher probability that this person could become our next shooter, we should make note and provisions for this information.  However, just because someone is Schizophrenic and likely has a less than 1% chance of becoming a shooter, we are not going to put this person in an asylum or jail. 

So, how do we identify who the next shooter is?  This same Safe School Initiative study offers a significant solution.  It states,

“An inquiry should focus instead on the student’s behavior and communication to determine if the student appears to be planning or preparing for an attack. … The ultimate question to answer in an inquiry is whether a student is on a path to a violent attack, and if so, to determine how fast they are moving and where intervention may be possible”  

This has been the basis of our work at the Center for Aggression Management over the past 19 years, to identify someone “on the path to a violent attack” or as we call it “emerging aggression.”  Nineteen years ago, we began developing our Aggression Continuum that would reflect a person’s aggression from its outset to its ultimate expression of murder/suicide. This Aggression Continuum has illustrated to us that the most lethal of all aggressors is the perpetrator of murder/suicide, something that we are increasingly seeing as we get news reports. I would speculate that Aaron Alexis went into Building 197 with the “goal” of suicide by cop. The official in this LA Times article also speculated this by the carved words found on his shotgun, “The first one (Better Off This Way) seems to have him saying he wanted to kill fellow workers or maybe expected to die himself.”

As humans, it is natural that we become transfixed on violence, but if we are to prevent the next shooting, we must get out in front of a violent attack by focusing on the precursors to violence. In fact, we can get out in front of aggressive behavior at the lowest levels of our Aggression Continuum and prevent conflict, much less violence. Since there are those who will express their conflict with violence, if we truly wish to prevent violence there is an increasing need to prevent conflict.  In our next posting, I would like to focus on “emerging aggression” from its outset to its ultimate expression and where Threat Assessment fits in this continuum. In next Blog Posting (Let’s Address the Issue of #ViolencePrevention,” Part 3), I will discuss “Threat Assessment” and our view as to how effective it is in identifying the next shooter.


  1. james

    I have taken away some personal beliefs that I can never know their ultimate “truth” and must rely on others’ criticisms to see them in the objective sense I think we all require. Could it be possible that it is not conflict that is the problem but instead it is our way of dealing with conflict that is the proof in the pudding?

    Maybe there are linguistic or behavioral clues that can be shared with our teachers and parents. It seems to me that there might be an underlying and recognizable pattern in a person’s language (use of metaphors, etc.?) and their behavior while working in small groups in a classroom or a work setting. Often these “nice young men” might just betray a lot about their personality and inner issues to people who are well-versed in communication and counseling skills. I would also think that police detectives who are familiar with interrogation techniques and interviewing might be able to help with this.

    Whatever the truth is and wherever it lies we all need to be educated. A half-century ago no one knew that violence against animals was a possible precursor to serial murder. Today many more of us are well aware of this early “clue” to later dysfunctional behavior in the adult world.

    That’s my hope. Education and sharing of knowledge is so important. You and the task of managing aggression seems to be one of the few bright spots in a new and uncertain social world. I think if we can get beyond our own limited convictions and share information with everyone we are much better prepared to be nimble and flexible when it comes to approaching the problem of violence.

    I once read an interview with a peace activist who observed that violence is the result of people not knowing what to do with their own suffering. For what it’s worth.

    Thanks for allowing comments. It is a perfect place to challenge ourselves and others in a hopefully respectful manner.

  2. John D. Byrnes

    Thank you James for your thoughtful comments.  I agree completely with the notion of using precursors of emerging aggression to better identify future violence.  It is my intention to share during these essays my view of how to achieve this end. In Part 3, I intend to illustrate how to prevent “bullying and conflict” by understanding their precursors. Subsequently, I intend to discuss the precursors to violence or identifying someone “on the path to a violent attack.”

  3. james

    I really appreciate your personal replies to my comments. And I am really, truly stimulated by your site and all of the commentary and information. A long time ago I read your own autobiography but I am wondering what your reading list is like and from whom and where you keep up with the latest research in violence prevention (as well as some useful everyday techniques we can all use to help contribute to a culture that is more knowledgable and aware of what everyone needs to do now.

    Can you suggest ideas for further reading? I read a book a year ago (while sitting in the bookstore I borrowed the work) by a criminologist whose entire book was trying to answer the question “Why they Kill.” He interviewed hundreds of killers and his journey through his life’s work was really informative and helpful for me.

  4. John D. Byrnes

    James, I read incessantly.  I have a significant library but have more recently gone to reading books and publications from my I Pad. I have run out of room in my library. I used to get strategic publications but now I review respected blogs.  As to recommended books, I might suggest you start with mine: “Before Conflict, Preventing Aggressive Behavior.”  You can purchase it from Amazon or direction from my website.  If you do, I will sign it.  http://www.aggressionmanagement.com/BeforeConflict.html

    Regards,  John

  5. Harold

    Having read several of your articles, your research is right on concerning my experience in the military, manufacturing supervision and 30 years of Human Resources/Labor Relations.

    My observations:

    1) Supervision at all levels and fields must be trained on how to properly give negative criticism to their employees. Most issues that show up in the HR Department for suspension or termination, have built for months or years and the majority of the damage to the employee in trouble mindset is done.
    2)Supervisors need refresher training on the likely cause and effect of their managing styles IF they happen to cross that rare employee that will be pushed to retaliation against co-workers/supervision/management. Using behavior profiling tools on supervisors will help them identify their “dark” side of managing and reduce the trauma to their employees.

    3)Management must use their policies to eliminate “bullies” from the workforce – we all have them, “Anti Harassment/Discrimination”, etc. Protect your good solid employees from bullies before the bullies become violent – it sets your company’s culture. Those employees that are victims of bullies (just like in schools) will be less likely to take matters in their own hands if the Company actively protects them.

    4)When counseling employees on performance issues, focus on the problem but never belittle the individual – counsel with respect for the individual. Even if their behavior is the problem, keep the high ground and treat them with respect right through the termination process.

    5)I do not seem to here of those in charge of security being the victims. Most HR professionals and managers have no training or experience in observing behaviors, security measures, or dealing with hostile employees (unarmed or armed). Security is normally not under HR, most security professional disdain HR and security/violence is not a normal part of the “Human Resources Body of Knowledge”. I have taught HR Certification classes for over a decade – it just isn’t a priority.

    6)Many of my peers whom I respect dearly in HR go straight to panic mode in emergencies – my military, emergency management, personal training and experience shows that in a crisis, individuals will revert back to their last best experience, or their training. Without either, they go directly to the “fight or flight (or freeze)” response. Why do we do annual fire drills/sever weather drills, or in the military do repetitive training on basic skills and quick reaction.

    Thanks for the great articles and blogs.

  6. David Brunette

    Lemmings are an example of aggressive behavior checked, no conflict everyone is happy following a bad leader off the cliff or shutting down the Government. You need to teach them the art of argument.

  7. John D. Byrnes

    Harold, you have absolutely right! 

    There is one underlining element to your comments I wish to share. While typically HR focuses on developing “trust” among their employees, and, Security focus on threats posed by employees and others. I see the world from a unique perspective; a continuum of trust and threat, once realized, tends to bring together both HR and Security to the same page. 

    There is one element that all earnest relationships must have to be genuine, whether personal, academic or business; that element is “trust;” which is a critical part of any effort to create teamwork, leadership and loyalty.  If someone trusts you 100%, they will go and do anything you ask of them because they trust you 100%. Once HR and security understand the “continuum of trust and threat” they will begin to understand and respect each other and the role they play in enhancing and protecting their venues.

    Our Primal and Cognitive Aggression Continua represents a “trust/threat continuum.” Since “Aggression” is always destructive and negative and “Assertive” is always constructive and positive, our Aggression Continuum is developed to identify destructive and negative behavior that we can constructive engage and diffuse or prevent. Our Continuum represents trust through “distrustful” behavior, offering HR, Security, Managers and Supervisors the opportunity to identify “distrustful” behavior, engage and diffuse and/or prevent it.  As an example, at the fourth phase/level of our Primal and Cognitive Aggression Continua we have, “Planting the seed of distrust.” This is when an aggressor covertly or overtly turns to a victim’s community (representing those individuals you respect, like and love and who you wish to respect, like and love you back), undermining your “trust relationship” with those in your community, setting the stage to deliberately turn your community against you, typically behind the your back. This occurs when an aggressor saying, “You know Harold, I just don’t know if I can trust him anymore!”  Harold, this is common practice on all organizations but once HR and Security understand how this presents both “trust” and “threat,” both will find themselves better trusting each other’s opinion as to both trust and threat.

  8. james

    David, I just wanted to say that your prescient comment personally gave me pause for further thought.

    I have come to the conclusion that people who have been raised in an atmosphere of respect, fairness and caring will never subject themselves to any system, job or person who values Father Knows Best values or patriarchal abuse such as many families exhibit today.

    Better self-disicipline rather than that behavior that is always in relationship to authority figures or peer group pressure.

    Critical thinking, patterned problem-solving and good communication skills are essential for everyone today. We can all both learn, teach and model such behavior in today’s global interconnectedness.

    Again, great ideas, David.

  9. John D. Byrnes

    James and David, although it is true that there are leaders and followers (in some cases: Lemmings) of a cause; and, of course there are those that simply refuse or are ambivalent to the cause. However, I am most concerned with those increasing number of individuals who rise to the level where they are prepared to give up their life for a cause, or worse yet, their goal is to give up their life for a cause!   I get Google Alerts on incidents of murder/suicide and I now get them daily.   Could it be that the Navy Yard Shooter, Aaron Alexis was one of these?

  10. james

    Our stepdaughter suffers from being bipolar as well as methamphetamine addiction. After dealing with this poor soul for more than 20 years, my wife and I can immediately recognize the mentally ill person masquerading as a social or criminal problem on the evening news. Not many of us understand this tragedy in our midst. Admittedly, I too have my dangerous blind spots. I have come to the idea that when there are delusions in the mentally ill, they are absolutely true. When a young mother drowns her own children because they are possessed by demons and that God demands they be killed, she carries out her tragic behavior because she understands the choices available to her on that level. I might do the same thing if I was trapped inside the disease of insanity. I remember seeing an interview with a convict who was serving a life sentence for murder. He had been convinced, he said, that only by actually entering into a woman’s body’s fillopian tubes would he be able to literally become “Born Again” as he felt he needed to do. He did what he knew was expected of him and he did it brutally with a knife, killing the poor woman. As soon as he did so, he recalled, he immediately was shocked back into sanity and realized the awful deed he had done.

  11. John D Byrnes

    James, thank again for your thoughtful insights.  Mental Illness, as you have described it, is so very difficult because, at what point is this individual “on a path to a violent attack.”  As I use the example of schizophrenia, where less than 1% of schizophrenics have murdered another human being; it becomes impractical that we can or will commit all schizophrenics to asylums so as to protect us from the 1%.  

    Yet in the case you described, this individual appeared to describe their need to dismember another human in order to be “born again.”  This is murder ideation, which clearly puts this individual, mental disorder or not, “on the path to a violent attack.”  I, as an Aggression Manager using our Judicious Interview, would suggest, “You really don’t mean that do you?” If this aggressor confirmed their intention, this would immediately place this person as an 8th phase Cognitive Aggressor and a grave threat. I would also hope that we would be exposed to lesser indicators of “emerging aggression” that would much early signal us to this aggressor “on the path to a violent attack.” 

    Further, psychologists are very reluctant to mandate involuntary evaluations and commit individuals to mental health facilities without some overriding threat.  Further still, psychologists are forbidden to discuss mental illness issues with you due to HIPAA regulations. In some states there is a duty to warn (some say “shall warn” where others say “may warn”) and in far too many states there is no duty to warn. Without some overriding system that can clearly and definitively describe this threat, too often, mental health counselors hand are tied to take any action to protect those around this aggressor.

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