Experts have concluded that targeted violence is very possibly preventable, and its severity and tragic nature demand that we be better prepared to respond. In July 2015, the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) convened a group of professionals with expertise in targeted violence and threat assessment at the University of Virginia. This multidisciplinary symposium brought together highly experienced and credentialed experts from the fields of law enforcement, academia, law, and mental health to collaborate on identifying strategies for preventing active shooter incidents and other forms of targeted violence before they occur.
Targeted violence is the purposeful, deliberate selection of a target prior to a violent attack. The target can be a specific individual or individuals, a class or category of individuals, or an institution. Common motives for targeted violence are revenge for a grievance, desire to solve a problem that is perceived as unbearable, or a desire to kill or be killed.
Contrary to common belief, offenders do not just “snap.” Targeted violence is premeditated, and planning and preparation can take place over many days, weeks, months, or even years. Because of the predatory and planned nature of targeted violence, very often other people know about the attacker’s idea or plan to attack. Observers including family members and bystanders are in an excellent position to recognize the warning signs that someone is moving towards an act of targeted violence and to learn how to respond.
Addressing the Topic of Targeted Violence
In addressing the topic of targeted violence, it is important to be mindful of language and terminology. Because of the glorification and idealization of violent attacks and attackers especially in the media, the BAU recommends that we change the language we use to describe acts of targeted violence. They recommend that instead of sensational language such as “active shooting” or “lone wolf” that we instead say incident or shooting incident and offender or assailant. The experts believe that this shift in language will help demystify and reduce the cultural fascination around these phenomena.
In November 2016, the US Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation published a 100+ page monograph that was authored by members of the BAU called, Making Prevention a Reality: Identifying, Assessing, and Managing the Threat of Targeted Attacks. The intention of this monograph is to educate and empower communities to address and prevent targeted violence such as mass shootings. The experts agreed that the best strategy to prevent targeted violence or a future, planned violent act is the threat assessment and management team. Accordingly, Making Prevention a Reality contains detailed information that is context-neutral (can be used in any situation), so that every community and organization can create or access a threat assessment team at their schools, places of worship, worksites, and public gatherings.
Threat assessment and management is a consistent and standardized process of identifying situations and persons of concern, gathering and assessing multiple sources of information in context, determining if those persons are moving toward an attack, mitigating risk of targeted violence, and intervening before an attack occurs. Since the Aurora Theater shooting, I’ve been involved in developing and facilitating violence prevention, threat assessment, and active shooter response training, and I have also been a member of a behavioral intervention team (BIT), a multidisciplinary, cross functional team that provides assessment and management of concerning student behavior and threats. Similar to a threat assessment and management team, the emphasis of a BIT is on preventing a threat before it occurs and providing support, intervention, and follow up.
I have found Making Prevention a Reality to be a valuable resource in that it provides recommendations, tools, and guidance on identifying persons of concern, threat assessment and threat management, insights into violence and mental health, and more. This information is not based on emotion, assumptions, guesswork, or opinion, but rather on empirical research and data and the expertise of those with real world experience drawn from past incidents of targeted violence. I have seen firsthand how the recommendations and tools that are offered by the BAU can and do save lives and help keep our schools, workplaces, and communities safer.
As we become better informed about the causes and warning signs of targeted violence, as well as guidelines, recommendations, protocols, and tools for threat assessment and management, we can all play an active role in prevention and preparedness. Making Prevention a Reality: Identifying, Assessing, and Managing the Threat of Targeted Attacks is a helpful guide that will enable every community to benefit from threat assessment and management teams.
About the Author, Dr. Peggy Mitchell Clarke
Dr. Peggy Mitchell Clarke is a clinical psychologist and retired psychology professor who has lived in Denver, Colorado for almost two decades. Between the attack on Columbine High School and the Aurora Theater shooting, some might say that Colorado has seen more than its fair share of targeted violence. Two days before the theater shooting, she was teaching Psych 101 at Community College of Aurora, which is just about 2 miles from the theater. The following week, she asked her students to raise their hand if they were impacted by the theater shooting either because they were there that night or they knew someone who was there. In her class of about 25 students, almost every student raised their hand.
US Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Investigation (2016). Making Prevention a Reality: Identifying, Assessing, and Managing the Threat of Targeted Attacks. US Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation.