Emerging Issues in Security

Is It Always Necessary to Meet the Subject of a Threat Assessment?

We know it takes a team effort and a multidisciplinary approach to solve the complex problem of workplace violence prevention. Successful threat assessments require information and conversation. We must know as much as possible about the subject making the threat and his or her intended targets. And we must be able to ask questions, get answers, and develop our potential solutions.

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So, if threat assessment is a collective effort, can you do an accurate threat assessment without actually meeting the subject?

The short answer is yes. A threat assessment expert explains it this way: “This question was posed to me at an organization where I was gathering information about the troubling behavior of an employee. I had met with many of his colleagues, discussed his behavior and employment history with his supervisors, read his ranting and disconnected e-mails, and even sat in anonymously during a large staff meeting where he tried to bully the group.”

“During my meeting with one of his coworkers, who happened to be a nonpracticing psychologist, this person said, rather dismissively, ‘I could never do a threat assessment without actually interviewing the subject. Don’t you plan to talk to him?’ I replied, ‘Talking to the subject is very useful in many situations. I do it whenever it’s possible and it helps my process. In this case, I believe my conversation with him would only make things worse, based on his level of paranoia.’”

“I certainly agree with the clinician’s point; it’s always helpful to get the threatener’s perspective. It’s always useful to see this person in an interview situation and make assessments about his or her seriousness, sobriety, control, blaming, targeting, remorse, anger, escalation, cadence, or plans.”

“Many threat assessment professionals have had cases where the subjects wanted to speak with them. They wanted to tell their stories and be heard, finally, by someone who would listen. But we can play a more effective role by being on the outside, and providing advice, support, and talking points to the people who will meet with the subject regularly (HR, security, supervisors). We know that threat assessment is not about ‘predicting violence,’ as much as it’s about assessing dangerousness. We must continue to use these four pillars of success: our information, our intuition, our experience, and our ability to communicate.”

“There are always going to be pros and cons about meeting with threateners. Sometimes our meetings with them escalate their behaviors and they act out, believing they have been triggered, their internal time clock is running down, or they feel forced to initiate their plans. Sometimes our meetings put them on notice that their behavior has been noticed and it must stop. But sometimes, as in the case of an ex-employee, anonymous cyber e-mailer, or phone threatener, we won’t ever know who we’re dealing with or be able speak to that person. That doesn’t mean we can’t help minimize his or her impact on the business or the victim.”

Given the choice between meeting or not meeting with a subject making threats, the answer is the same: it depends. If we can sit across from the person of concern, we should. If we can get data from a wide variety of sources, it may not be necessary (or possible) to meet with the person to draw our conclusions and come up with a plan.