I attended a regional training conference of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals (ATAP) in Philadelphia, PA in June 2018. An ATAP national leader opened with an apt comparison. He said, and I’m paraphrasing from my notes, if your doctor asks you “do you want to prevent a heart attack?” most of us would say yes. But when the doctor then says “okay, then go eat more fruits and vegetables, exercise daily” and so on, we lose interest. The same thing happens, he said, when threat assessment professionals talk about preventing targeted violence. Everyone is keen on preventing another mass casualty attack, but too few people are willing to look upstream and focus on helping those in crisis as a viable means of prevention.
I knew my instincts were right to reach out to this community of professionals. Speaker after speaker at this training conference shared facts and insights that are applicable to the issues we address at the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority - Targeted Violence Prevention Program. We are all talking about saving lives; not just the lives of people who may be the victims of a mass casualty attack, but also of individuals who may just as soon harm themselves as hurt others.
Another presenter, a chief threat assessment officer at a major U.S. university, noted that if all you are doing are active shooter drills, then you are not doing enough. That tactic, while important, can only reduce the number of casualties. He argued that we also need measures to try to prevent violence in the first place.
The training conference also highlighted the case where nothing happened. This case study was shared by a federal law enforcement professional. He discussed the case of an individual who exhibited various risk factors ranging from untreated symptoms related to mental illness, a history violence, substance abuse, and the erosion of several protective factors that otherwise would be a bulwark against these other problems. The presenter then walked us through the mitigation strategies they used, the help this man received, and then he ended his presentation. No flash, no bang. Nothing bad happened. He said we need more such case studies. I agree.
The kind of help offered and accepted in that case where nothing bad happened may not be the norm, but it is not unheard of either. In Illinois some community members worked with a young man who was on a path that looked likely to lead him to one of two ends: federal prison or his death some place far away as a foreign fighter. A third possibility was that he would continue suffering from bullying and a host of other problems without ever harming another person. None of these outcomes are acceptable. Or at least, none of them should be acceptable. Fortunately, this young man received help from a variety of resources, and he is now in a much better situation.
Our goal really ought to be building healthier, safer, more resilient communities. That involves a lot of things from better schools, better and more resources for local job creation, an end to mass incarcerations, and improving community and police relationships to name a few. These are all important and the sooner we can bring them about the better. In the more immediate term, it also includes helping those who are in crisis or distress.
A university-based psychiatrist made a related point at the training conference when he said (speaking about mental illness and its symptoms) we should try to mitigate risk even if there is not a causal connection between mental illness and violence. In other words, when someone needs help we should try to get it for them. If that is our mindset, then the issue of stigma can be significantly lessened. He also went on to note that it is the active symptoms and not the diagnosis that is associated with the risk of violence.
When it comes to hate or ideologically motivated targeted violence, even violence prevention practitioners pause. “Oh, that’s different” they say. The responses of the general public are even more concerning when the types of ideologies are further identified. When the assailant has a far-right, white supremacist, or anti-government motive there is a penchant for blaming it on mental illness. The facts that most individuals with mental illness are not violent and that they are far more likely to be the victims of violence are ignored. The violence is attributed simply to mental illness.
But when the assailant is identified as a Muslim, the most common response is that “he is evil,” or that his faith is evil and that is why he did it. Nothing else matters. That individual’s history of trauma, substance abuse, the undiagnosed or untreated symptoms that may be related to some type of mental health issue, the dysfunctional home life, the history of child abuse and so many other factors go by the wayside. It all gets reduced to ideology.
This is the result of biases. Not the “I hate black people” or “I hate Muslims” bias, but cognitive biases. A psychologist at the training conference walked us through a list of cognitive biases that impact how we evaluate what we observe. The fact that this group of professionals is talking and training on this subject is heartening, because cognitive biases are most certainly at play when we look at perceptions of different types of targeted violence and the perpetrators responsible for them.
That said, I agree that the ideology espoused by groups like ISIS is evil. The ideology of white supremacists is evil too. All the other extremist groups across the political spectrum that dehumanize the “other” and promote violence as the only recourse for their grievances could be described as evil. But what role does ideology really play in these cases? It is very hard to say. Researchers in America and abroad are working on these issues, and if there are answers to be had, they will find them using rigorous research to do so.
In the meantime we have other tools. There are many factors that threat assessment professionals rely on to make thoughtful assessments and which then guide meaningful mitigation strategies. Violent ideations may be one factor, but until we know more it plays a small role. A threat assessment team would not stop its assessment at the discovery of a violent ideology, nor would it ignore a case devoid of a violent ideology when it still presents other risk factors.
The work that threat assessment professionals do in universities, corporations, and in other venues needs to spread farther and wider. What they do to assess and mitigate the risk of violence can be helpful for communities too. There needs to be a mechanism to connect these threat assessment teams with the broader community.
In the absence of that, bad things can happen even when a threat assessment team gets it right. Take the case of Jared Loughner. He attended Pima Community College in Arizona. They had a threat assessment team on campus, and it recognized that Loughner showed an elevated risk of violence (based on various behaviors) to the point that they had him removed from the campus. That did not eliminate or even reduce the risk of violence. At best it reduced the likelihood that the violence would take place on campus.
Loughner still lived in the community, and eventually he attacked and killed innocent people including a 9 year old girl, and he injured many other innocent people including Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. This horrific attack took place in that same community. This is why the work of threat assessment professionals and of multi-disciplinary teams focused on helping people mitigate the problems and crises in their lives needs to be amplified.
When looking upstream with a mindset to help those in crisis and by using the strategies and tactics that threat assessment professionals are equipped with, we may be able to make more progress towards preventing all forms of targeted violence.