What is a threat assessment?

After yesRisk Assessmentterday’s post, it became evident many people had never heard of threat assessments in terms of  mental health and crime prevention. Typically assessments are not added to the calculus of overall preventative measures on a local law enforcement level. In most cases this is due to a misunderstanding of their usefulness. In other cases unfortunately, assessments are willfully avoided in an effort to limit agency liability. In the end, we all do assessments of people, situations, buildings, syndicates and so on daily, we just don’t formalize them and distribute them outside of a controlled group. After having conducted well over 400 assessments in the last five years, I’ve learned the only good assessment is one that can be acted upon. For this to happen, they have to be sent to the people who need them most. This piece will focus on some basic tenets of an assessment. Later, I will discuss the “to whom…” portion. Understand, an in-person class on assessments lasts 10 hours so what follows is a very compressed version.

The first thing to remember is threat assessments are dynamic. This is to say, what is accurate now may not be so in 10 minutes. For this reason, assessors expend a lot of energy keeping the assessment as accurate as possible. Most times, the assessment will hold for the time needed to take action whether that be mental health intervention or detainment. There are times however when the ink will have barely dried and the assessment needs to be updated. This point is very important to remember for two groups of people; the customer and the command staff. For this reason both the customer and command staff must dedicate a person to continually liaise with the assessment team so pertinent updates can be pushed quickly to the end users.

The next critical element of an assessment is research. Knowing the risk a subject poses comes in part from understanding from where they came both literally and figuratively. Assessors must dive deep into the history of the subject for this information. For law enforcement this means reading potentially dozens of police reports, arrest records, and field contact cards. The work can be tedious, but one nugget of information can make a life or death difference. For corporate security or contractors, research may be a major obstacle but it’s not one that cannot be overcome. Most counties across the country publish court records on-line and most police departments will provide copies of reports for a nominal fee. If that is all you have, then do what you can. Take a moment to research the subject’s digital world as well. For some, you may only find a digital shadow, while others have a significant digital footprint.

Once the research is complete, the assessor moves to the analysis phase. In reality, an assessment team would simultaneously dig and analyze, however in most agencies assessments fall on one or two people. For this reason, it is necessary to set aside time strictly for analysis. During this phase the assessor begins building a profile of the subject. They will answer questions like, is there a history of violence? What motivated the violence? What are the subject’s stressors? Based on known information, does the subject have a plan to commit violence? Do they have means, motivation, and opportunity? What is the subject’s pattern of life? Finally, as a byproduct of good analysis, the assessor should start seeing shatter-points or weak spots in the subject’s behavior. These become critical in the conclusion phase.

Post analysis, the assessment team needs to make a decision; what is the threat level? The assumption here is a threat matrix already exists. If it does not, then an assessment is nothing more than a research project. The best threat matrices are simple and contain at a minimum three levels. Threat matrices with five or more levels can be cumbersome and not conducive to true assessments. Once the assessment team has made a decision on the threat level, they need to be prepared to defend their choice. This is where the research and analysis will be scrutinized and tested. If done correctly, the threat level will coincide with the known information.

Finally, the conclusion of the assessment is where the customer will start their approach. The conclusion should highlight weaknesses in the subject’s pattern of life, violent plans, or criminal tendencies. These areas need to be exploited in order to frustrate the subject’s plan. By the time the customer reads the conclusion they should have already fo
rmulated a plan and know where their best chances of success lay. The conclusion is where analysis meets actions.

As you have probably noted by now, a full scale assessment will take time. For this reason, assessment teams should have a plan in place for short term assessments that can be used in the interim until a full scale product arrives. Regardless of the length, all assessments should provide actionable intelligence that can be taken by the customer and immediately applied to whatever operation is needed.

Ending Mass Killings in the U.S.- A radical approach.

There is a small group of law enforcement professionals in the United States who look at mass shootings and say, “We could have stopped this.” Such a phrase is not hyperbole or a sign of hubris rather it is a reflection of type of work we engage in each day. Our job is not sexy, it does not lend itself to war stories or dramatic conflicts and in most circles it is regarded with nothing more than a shrug of indifference. When the word “assessment” enters the conversation it is almost immediately set alongside crime analysis and elven magic. The world of threat assessments is seldom understood and appreciated even less, however when looking at the current state of mass murders in the United States, threat assessments may be the only answer.

In almost every mass shooting over the last decade, the suspects announced their intentions in one form or another. It is true that in a few cases, the suspects’ capability of waging asymmetric warfare on humanity caught everyone by surprise. However, in most cases during a post incident review, trained professionals saw pre-indicators of the attack and had they been in the right positions, could have intervened. It is time now that these professionals move from post incident commentary to pre-incident actions. To do this, some changes need to be made.

The first is in the law enforcement culture. Agencies need to focus on moving from a reactive force to a pro-active, intelligence led entity. Intelligence led policing (ILP) is the foundation upon which true threat assessments are built. Agencies with an established intelligence cycle will find assessments a force multiplier. The concepts of ILP have been hijacked in recent years by command staffs bent on adapting their procedures to the newest technology. In doing so, the emphasis has been removed from human analysis and placed on sophisticated algorithms promising everything from temporal to predictive analysis. The unfortunate proof of their monumental failures is found in Arizona, Connecticut, and California. At the end of the day, ILP is about the intelligence cycle not artificial intelligence.

The second change is in the mental health system. A true assessment of a person’s capacity for murder will only be complete with the opinions and analysis of mental health professionals. Law enforcement threat analysts have expressed major frustration with the chasm between them and the medical community. The medical industry must realize that HIPAA has been turned from a protective oversight to an impenetrable brick wall used more as a liability shield than a patient’s right. Threat analysts working with psychologists would offer a powerhouse team of professionals dedicated to preventing mass killings while at the same time respecting the sacred nature of patient privacy. Furthermore, only mental health professionals know the enigmatic system and how to leverage it to get people the help they need before bullets are fired.

Finally, the public has to change the conversation about mass killings. This has never been about political affiliations or allegiances. It has always been about man’s inhumanity to man. Each time a human being is rundown, stabbed, or shot in a mass killing the nation loses a little of its’ soul. As pundits and fear mongers race to the closest microphones, men and women across the country beg the heavens to make it “not their baby” or sink in thankful prayer they have been spared. The conversation needs to focus on making this stop. Making it stop means getting to the root of the problem which in many cases is mental health, indifference to suffering, and yes even terrorism. Some of these things can be countered in the home, for the others there are resources available. People need to know there is a way to counter this problem and it has little to do with slogans and focus groups.

The power to stop mass killings exists. Through competent cooperative assessments based on true intelligence led concepts, threat analysts can and will stem the tide of mass murder. As stated earlier, it will require some changes, but the changes are not so radical when compared to the suffering each incident brings the public.