Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


Violence In the Workplace

How do you do a threat assessment for a corporation?

Threat assessments are preventive in nature. In other words, we're trying to assess the credibility of a threat before a crime occurs so that appropriate intervention strategies may be invoked. It's important to realize that not all threats and not all threateners are created equal.

Threateners can be either anonymous or known. With an anonymous threat, there is obviously less to work with, but in many cases anonymous threats are less credible. Yet it's not uncommon for us to get calls from our corporate clients or from schools where they're getting anonymous threats of some sort. Anonymous threats may provide information on which to construct a profile of the unknown threatener, which, like any profile, can be used to identify the threatener. However, with a known individual, we have a richer environment to work with. In either case, we assess the threat and then give practical advice about what to do.

Is threat assessment different for the workplace than for schools?

Much of it's the same. You can be hit with similar problems. It's parallel to the degree that you can have the same construct, such as an anonymous threat. Or you may have to work with false allegations, where the alleged victim is the offender.

John Monahan at the University of Virginia has done some of the best work on dangerousness assessment, with the MacArthur Risk Assessment. That's the best framework to use when we're in that arena. He works in four basic domains:

  1. The personal and dispositional factors of an individual: impulsiveness, anger, personality issuesis this a psychopath or not?
  2. The developmental or historical domain: past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. So we look at what the person has done in the past and what coping mechanisms he has used; we also look at family history.
  3. Context or situational variables: Where are we right now with this individual? We're looking at perceived stress and the means of violence: Has this person gone out and bought guns and is he under a lot of stress?
  4. Clinical factors: This is the mental health issue, where we evaluate the psychopathology or what's wrong with the person.

That's Monahan's approach, but there are other variations on this as well. For example, one may look to see if there is any apparent psychopathology evident that is, a mental health issue such as psychosis. Next, one can look at the personality or character issues for a given individual. These are related but separate issues. There may be no mental health problem; it may all be just character issues, like a hardcore psychopath. Then we look at the vulnerability of potential victims. Do we have a specific targeted victim? Finally, there's the vulnerability of the potential setting, which is a security issue.

A critically important issue is verifying the key facts derived from an investigation, as these facts form the basis for the assessment. Sometimes the case is not what it seems when you first get it. Sometimes it's worse, sometimes it is not quite as bad.

When you're called in, what are the steps you take?

It's a decision-making tree. You start by determining if the threatener is known or unknown. If known, then we can begin our analysis as I just indicated. If unknown, we have to proceed in a different direction. We look at how the threat was communicated. Was it verbal or written? If written, how was it written? Almost no one uses a typewriter anymore, so that's not usually an issue now, but we look at whether it was word-processed or handwritten. Then we do content analysis.

If it's verbal, we teach clients that if someone's phoning in a threat, hit the record button if one's available. If not, the person who takes the call needs to write down right away as much as he can remember verbatim about what the person said and how he said it. We're interested in specifics.

We look at issues such as whether the person might be delusional. Schizophrenics who are delusional make no sense. Clinicians refer to "poverty of content." If they communicate in writing they tend to write all over the place. They write around the paper, in circles, around the margins, and on the envelopes. Schizophrenia by itself tends to be a mitigating variable, in that the people may be "crazy" but they're typically not dangerous. Even if they're writing something that appears threatening, what are the chances they can actually act out on it? That's the other issue: the plausibility of the threatswhether they can actually follow through.

In general terms, the more specific the threat, the more credible it may be. For example, someone might threaten product contamination. He will write in and say, 'We're going to poison your food product.' That may be a less credible threat. On the other hand, if he provides credible detail or provides a sample of a contaminated product or perhaps sends you to the store to find the productaisle three, lane seven, and it's got a blue stickerthat enhances the credibility, which in turn shapes the recommended intervention strategies.

I had one case when I was with the FBI where a company that produced a lot of food products was being extorted with threats to poison one of their products. They were considering a massive recall. Obviously that was their decision, but our analysis indicated that the threat was not credible. Letters from twelve or fourteen different cities were sent to the corporate headquarters, supposedly from different people from the same organization, an alleged terrorist group. They said, even if you arrest us in one city, we've got many other people out there, so don't try to arrest us when we pick up the money because the others will carry through with the threat. This is pretty daunting to a corporation, but our analysis was that it was one person, not a group, and that the threat continued to be less than credible. We felt confident that using our investigative resources we could identify and arrest the lone offender without increasing the danger to the public or the liability of the corporation, which is just what happened. Our agents identified and arrested the offender, and a follow-up investigation determined that he'd acted alone and that not only were no products contaminated, he had neither a plan nor the capability of carrying one out.

Sydney Reso (AP)
Sydney Reso (AP)

In another case we had, Sydney Reso, the president of Exxon International, was kidnapped from his home in Morristown, New Jersey, and held for ransom. Tragically he died of a gunshot inflicted during the abduction. This was unknown to investigators, but as time went on our concern for his safety grew. The kidnappers demanded that the money be put into Eddie Bauer duffel bags, and they gave us more instructions, but to give you a window into content analysis, one of the things that caught our attention was the Eddie Bauer duffel bag. Why Eddie Bauer? From that, along with other content issues examined in their demands, we developed the profile of a "yuppie" couple. Then forensic analysis revealed trace evidence of golden retriever dog hair in with some of the notes. Sure enough, our hunch was exactly what we ended up with, a would-be yuppie couple with a golden retriever.

Ted Kaczynski (AP)
Ted Kaczynski (AP)

Content analysis is very important. We're looking for indications of personalitywho they are and any identifying characteristics. We look at grammar, syntax, and level of vocabulary, which gives us an idea of the educational level. The content can be very telling. You can't write very long without revealing things about yourself. There's a leakage of clues about who you are. You expose yourself unconsciously. The Ted Kaczynski case was a great example of that. He wanted his 35,000-word manifesto published under threat of extortion, which became an ethical issue for the New York Times and other media sources. From an investigative point of view, our unit strongly recommended that the manifesto be published because we reasoned that this could be the key: He could not have written that many words without revealing himself. Somebody is going to know this guy. It's like a fingerprint. And his brother's wife read it and recognized it.

How do you gather information like this about someone who's paranoid? Aren't you afraid you might trigger him?

It's common for us to deal with paranoid individuals and care is always appropriate. I don't want to get too clinical, but there is a difference between paranoid schizophrenia, which is a true mental health problem that can be treated effectively through medication and therapy, and a paranoid personality disorder that cannot be treated effectively with medication. The intervention strategies obviously have to be different and are tailored on an individual basis. We don't want to provoke the violence we're trying to prevent. So we have to look at the nature and focus of the paranoiawho is it or what is it that the person is paranoid about? Sometimes it's very fixed and other times it's generalized. If he's paranoid about, say, management in a company, he may think their supervisor is out to get him. So right away, we'll take that person out of the mix.

Even if the allegations have no basis in fact, it doesn't matter because it's that individual's perception of reality that counts. Say hypothetically that a paranoid individual perceives his supervisor as threatening, even though that is not true. It's this person's reality that we have to understand. The wrong thing to do is ignore the troubled individual's perception because it is 'factually' wrong. Having that individual's supervisor sit down and talk to that employee about the issue could have unwanted consequences. Even if that's the chain of command and it's what company or school policy advocates, it's the wrong thing to do. So you think more creatively. You look for someone you might be able to use to bridge the gap and then develop a strategy for approaching this troubled individual in a benevolent and non-threatening manner.

We had a guy who was paranoid and depressed. He blamed every problem he had on the company, from his work environment to his sex life. He'd had back surgery and was in pain and on mediation. There were many problems in his life. He was repeatedly making threats and the decision was made that he had to be removed from the workplace. It was important that the termination be constructed so it would be difficult for him to conclude that the company was out to hurt him. We had to be creative. He was given a generous severance package and his health insurance was continued so that he could continue to receive the necessary medical care for his back. We shaped the termination to be as benevolent as possible.

The goal is to make it difficult for them to be angry with the company. We want each troubled employee to understand that the company has gone out of its way, which it did in that case, to look after him. When you do that, you reduce the potential for violence. The flip side is that you can elevate the potential for violence by being very hard and cruel, even if you're right. The question we often pose to companies or schools is, "Do you want to be right or do you want to be safe?"

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