How to Prevent Violence: Threat Assessment Investigations

When I was a Secret Service agent in the Washington Field Office, we had an assignment called the Northwest (NW) Gate that was staffed 24 hours per day, 7 days per week.  The U.S. Secret Service (USSS) conducts threat assessment investigations on individuals who have a threatening or concerning interest in persons and property the agency protects. The goal is to detect potential acts of violence as early as possible and prevent harm. The NW Gate is one of the White House gates on Pennsylvania Avenue. Visitors from all over the world regularly present themselves to the USSS Uniformed Division (UD) officers stationed there and expect to see the President of the United States. On other occasions, White House “fence-jumpers” are apprehended by UD officers. In both situations, as the NW Gate agent, I would be summoned to interview the “visitors”. These individuals were often mentally ill and became subjects of threat assessments, also known as protective intelligence (PI) investigations. The agent assigned to the NW Gate became the case agent. It was fascinating work, but we would have preferred to intercept the visitors and fence-jumpers prior to their arrival on Pennsylvania Avenue at 2:00 am, a feeling that was inevitably mutual, at least in hindsight.

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Since 1999, the USSS National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) has examined numerous incidents of targeted violence directed toward federal officials, government facilities and schools. The results of their research have been used to develop best practices in the field of threat assessment. Their findings reveal that attackers often provide behavioral clues well in advance of committing acts of violence. NTAC case studies highlight the importance of engaging in early intervention with individuals who elicit concern before they begin to view violence as an option to solve their problems. Some of the observable symptoms identified in previous attackers include concerning behaviors that can be minor when viewed in isolation, but often occur in a variety of settings and recur across time.  Common themes include disturbing communications, sudden or dramatic changes in behavior, a decline in interpersonal functioning, and eliciting concern from others that the subject may cause harm. More than half of studied attackers suffered from one or more mental health symptoms, such as paranoia, delusions, hallucinations, and depression or suicidal thoughts.

Responsible businesses and organizations must implement proactive measures in today’s environment to prevent violence and protect schools, the workplace and other public venues from potential attackers. When someone reports feeling alarmed or fearful regarding another person’s actions or communications, managers should always take such concerns seriously. In fact, encouraging and setting a low threshold for the reporting of concerning behaviors is essential, and policies and procedures should be in place to respond to such concerns with appropriate action. Employers who are worried that an employee they intend to terminate may become violent should consider consulting security, law enforcement or a threat assessment professional prior to informing the employee of the termination.  A qualified threat assessment investigator should be identified and consulted in advance to prepare for the potential need, as time is of the essence when the risk of violence is suspected. 

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It is advisable to consult a skilled threat assessment professional when an individual in your environment communicates in a threatening manner, causes others to feel unsafe, exhibits symptoms of depression, or displays bizarre or inappropriate behaviors. A competent investigator experienced in threat assessments will be creative in identifying diverse sources of information and following investigative leads. Threat assessment investigators should be compassionate, patient and possess expertise interviewing persons who exhibit symptoms of mental illness. A comprehensive background investigation and interviews of the subject and many others should be conducted to explore his or her stressors and mental health symptoms, and determine how they impact the individual’s motives and behavior. For example, if the subject is experiencing hallucinations, are they commanding her to act, and if so, is she responsive to those commands? If he is enduring delusions of persecution, does he view violence as an option to solve the problem? Are symptoms of depression influencing a motive to carry out an attack as a means of suicide? The subject’s coping mechanisms and support systems, or lack thereof, should be examined. Evidence of planning and pre-attack behaviors should be sought, such as acquiring weapons or explosives. Finally, a threat assessment professional will evaluate the subject’s dangerousness and recommend the implementation of appropriate interventions to mitigate risk.

Threat assessment investigations differ from traditional investigations in several ways. Threat assessment professionals are trained to evaluate numerous factors and deliver an informed opinion as to the subject’s likelihood of committing violence, rather than strictly reporting facts related to specific allegations. The primary goal of a threat assessment investigation is to prevent violence and protect the subject, the target and the community. The end-goal is not to determine guilt or innocence, but rather to mitigate risk. Appropriate interventions often include helping the subject obtain support systems and services, such as treatment, housing and financial aid. Restraining orders and physical security measures are often prudent to protect the potential target. The subject may need to be hospitalized or detained if there are imminent safety concerns or criminal violations. Ongoing monitoring of the subject may also be recommended. Because of the potential risk of violence, threat assessment investigations should be conducted within a more condensed timeline than traditional investigations. Finally, early intervention affords a better outcome for all parties.

One of my more memorable NW Gate cases illustrates the criticality of early intervention. It involved an elderly woman from Italy who suffered from command hallucinations. She perceived President Clinton communicating with her through the television, and believed he was directing her to travel to the White House to move in with him. She arrived at the NW Gate in a taxi from Dulles International Airport with all her belongings in several suitcases and without any money to pay the cab driver. Through an Italian-speaking UD officer who interpreted for our interview, I learned that in preparation for the move, she had sold her home in Rome, and disposed of most of her belongings. Although she was not deemed to present a threat, it was a heartbreaking situation that could have been avoided had someone observed and reported her confused thoughts and behaviors. Early intervention could have provided this individual with support and services that likely would have prevented her drastic and life-altering actions.

Angela Hrdlicka, CEO of Island Green Associates LLC, spent a significant portion of her distinguished 25-year law enforcement career conducting, managing and teaching high-stakes PI investigations. In the Intelligence Division, a USSS headquarters assignment, she oversaw and evaluated the sufficiency of all PI cases in Region 1, which had a larger caseload than all other regions combined and included Washington D.C., New York City and the northeast corridor. As an instructor at the USSS James J. Rowley Training Center, she taught new agents to conduct PI investigations, interview individuals suffering from mental illness, and how to evaluate dangerousness and mitigate risk. Island Green Associates provides security risk management, investigations and law enforcement consulting services to public and private sector organizations and is licensed by the Georgia Board of Private Detective and Security Agencies.