Let’s Address the Issue of #ViolencePrevention,” Part 3

Threat Assessment, does it tell us who the next shooter will be?  There is a complete industry built upon “Threat Assessment,” filled with very competent individuals whose objective is to reduce the probability of another shooter.  As important as this is, does “reducing the probability” of a shooting actually identify the next shooter? We will address this in Part 4.

Threat Assessment, by its definition, is an assessment of a threat that already exists!  It is the hope of its user to identify a “lesser threat” and thereby prevent a “greater threat;” however, there is no assurance that the “lesser threat” will not be a threat to life or limb!  In the case of the Navy Yard Shooter, Aaron Alexis, when did the Navy Yard realize that Aaron Alexis posed a threat?  Once he started shooting people!  Police officers in RI suspected that Aaron Alexis was a threat and notified the Navy of their concerns but apparently the Navy’s means of assessing threat was not sufficient to assess and take action to prevent this tragedy.  Either they have no such system in place or the system that they have did not place enough emphasis on the indicators given them by the RI police officers to warn them of the impending attack.  Either way, the obvious results being, people died because no one was able to get out in front of this attack and prevent it from happening.  Are you frustrated enough with these killings to look for more effective solutions?  We at the Center for Aggression Management are the first to admit there is no absolute safe venue, but there are ways to make our venues “as safe as possible,” the ultimate of evidence-based Best Practices.  We intend to demonstrate how . . . but I digress.

In recent years many have built Threat Assessment around graduated levels of prevention, referred to Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Prevention.  Primary Prevention represents those with a lower probability of becoming violent due to their particular circumstances, like attending school or involved in positive-social activities that might reduce their probability of becoming violent. Secondary Prevention refers to individuals who are at a reduced risk because they are working or increase risk because they have joined a known violent gang. Tertiary prevention is the application of new security policies and procedures to reduce the probability of further violence, indicating that violence currently exists and further action must be taken to reduce its probability in the future.  More recently, there is “Situational Prevention,” which uses techniques focusing on reducing the opportunity to commit violence. Some of these techniques include increasing the difficulty of violence, increasing the risk of violence to the aggressor, and reducing the rewards of violence. 

Regardless of these more sophisticated definitions of “prevention;” it is our opinion that “prevention” simply means that you prevented violence or an incident. You were able to reliably get out in front of an incident and thereby prevent it.  Or stated another way consistent with this topic of Threat Assessment; you were able to reliably get out in front of a “threat” of violence and prevent that “threat!” Anything else is a reaction!  I hear people using the phrase “proactive” or “proactive intervention.” The problem that we have is that one can be “proactively” reactive and that is not “prevention!”

So, how do you get out in front of a threat of violence? In Part 4, I will address “Probability versus Prevention through Reliable Predictability. How to Get Our In Front of a Threat of Violence.”

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  1. james

    I don’t recall if I have mentioned this before (I have commented for the site in the past) but my stepdaughter is mentally ill, schizophrenic and delusional as well as addicted to meth and/or other substances. She is now 40 years old, living on her own but still in contact with my wife and I. And I am scared spitless of her. Her delusions are bizarre and she often makes threats about killing those of us in her own family. I have done extensive reading about psychosis and delusions of the mentally ill (Heck, news of these people and their tragic confrontations with law enforcement are in our local news once a week!) and I am convinced that if I were bi-polar and got a message from God that one of my own children was possessed by a demon, I might very easily do what my God has supposedly commanded me to do! This fact of the mentally ill among us is a real problem and with all of the shootings in our news it is now the elephant in the living room of our entire nation. A way to confront this problem in a collaborative manner is urgently needed. That’s one of the main reasons I so appreciate the work done by John Byrnes and others. We need a lot of tools at our disposal that will work when we need them. And we need to cultivate the flexibility and nimble action that will work in different situations.

  2. Harold

    I may not fully understand your point, but from the HR level “getting out in front” involves doing the criminal background checks and not hiring individuals with (convicted of) violence, sales of drugs, numerous DUI’s. Legal and government get very uptight about refusing to hire based on charges instead of convictions, but also for those with convictions. If you treat all applicants with the same sieve you have a better chance of winning discrimination charges. Next is culture development from day one of the orientation – new hires have to know you are serious about preventing work place harassment of any type, and supervisors have to know how to observe and how to partner with HR to deal with it. Personality “tests” can give some indication who will be most likely to emotionally react to various work/personal pressures and act very aggressively – verbally if not physically. Knowing of these individuals can help management keep these people reeled in when they see symptoms. I do not advocate using these tools as a litmus test for violent behavior – it is only a tool to forecast assertive behavior that can be interpreted as aggressive. If you work in a company with a collective bargaining agreement, start working with the labor organization before an incident happens which hopefully will garner their cooperation in investigating harassment/threatening cases before someone becomes violent. Unions have conflict in these cases – protecting a person facing discipline or protecting the other company members/non-members from violence. From my research and experience, most will lay this responsibility totally at the Company’s feet for legal reasons, but document your communications and efforts. At least they will know your plan, and you will have an idea of their probable response.

  3. John D. Byrnes

    I understand completely, Harold.  Your illustration describes the method approach used by most HR professionals across the world, but how reliable is it in preventing the next violent act?  The Wall Street Journal, a few years ago, conducted a survey that demonstrated that 3% of those who committed violence in the workplace had a criminal past. In other words 97% of those committing acts workplace violence did not have a criminal past. What does this say about the practice of criminal background checks? Background check are important but there is a significant question as to their effectiveness in preventing violent behavior. And you allude to the problem with Personality “tests” according to the same Wall Street Journal article; charges of discrimination severely limited that types of test that might offer vital information.


    I applaud your attempts to affect the organizational culture, setting the stage for zero tolerance of discrimination and abuse.  However, we have found that when issues are framed as “being civil,” or “caring,” or “tolerant,” people are just not motivated enough to make real changes. When, on the other hand, we frame this issue as “aggressive behavior,” we have found that people are tired of others being aggressive and want to better understand how to control this abusive behavior and make themselves safer. This is not just the fear of violence but lesser offenses like “planting the seed of distrust.” 


    A partial truth, outright cognitive aggression at the Fourth Phase/Level in the Escalation Phase; a technique used throughout all organizations. If someone went to your community (those people you like, love and respect and who you want to like, love and respect you back) and spoke about you by saying: “You know Harold.  I don’t know if I can still trust him anymore.  I don’t know why, I just don’t feel comfortable around him anymore.”  This person has just planted the seed of distrust.  This insidious seed will grow like weeds in a garden.  Partial truth can be far more detrimental than complete truth.  We believe that if more employees understood that they were being overtly “aggressive,” they will be less likely to use this behavior in the future.  At least this has been our experience over the past nearly twenty years!

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