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Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Critical Look at Mass Shootings in the United States

By Jeffrey W. Pollard, Phd, ABPP


You may have seen the USA Today article released on December 3, 2013. It is an informative piece addressing mass shooting in the United States and includes helpful criticism of the methodology the FBI and local law enforcement has employed collecting these data and how it can be improved.  If you are going to dive in, be sure to click through the interactive links – they contain some of the most revealing information. The article can be found here:



Dr. Gene Deisinger, our colleague at SIGMA, characterized the article as one of the most complete public media analyses of mass violence he has seen, and I agree. 
Looking at the issue longitudinally, per capita rates of mass killings really have not changed. What has changed is a shift from private/family killings to public/stranger killings which doesn’t quite come out in the article but is outlined in Grant Duwe’s work as well as that of others. Overall there is a slight uptrend in the number of victims per incident though it doesn’t appear statistically significant with the mode remaining very close to 4 - the definition of a mass incident. However the majority of catastrophic mass killings, e.g., 10 or more, have occurred in the last 30 years. It is interesting that the authors do not focus solely on gun violence as I anticipate there is more information forthcoming on non-gun mass killing.
Two important areas remain to be addressed (there are likely others):
1) Disrupted or prevented attacks
2) Attacks in which the perpetrator intended to kill multiple victims but fewer than 4 died (these incidents are not counted). This is harder to get a handle on but has likely skewed the analysis by excluding cases when, for example, the reason fewer than 4 died was not a function of perpetrator intent but of rapid delivery of trauma services or some other intervention.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Threat Assessment Q&A: "What is the Role of a Forensic Psychologist or Psychiatrist in the Threat Assessment Process?"

by Gene Deisinger, Ph.D.

Q: What is the role of a forensic psychologist/psychiatrist -- as an independent examiner -- in supplementing an effective threat assessment / management process?

A: There is some confusion about the role and purpose (and limitations) of a forensic psychologist/psychiatrist as an independent examiner in conducting "Direct Threat" and/or Fitness for Duty evaluations.  These evaluations are often useful in supplementing an effective threat assessment and management process.  We have found independent forensic examinations both to be over-used (e.g., being mandated when it would not be lawful to do so) -- and also under-used (e.g. when such expertise could inform a threat assessment team’s perspective on managing a case).

A psychological evaluation of this sort is appropriate under the following conditions:
  • when there is a reasonable belief that a person of concern (i.e., a student or employee) may pose a direct threat (as defined by law) to the campus/workplace/others
        AND
  • that such potential threat may (reasonably) be due to a psychological/psychiatric/medical condition or disability. 
The fundamental question for an examination of this sort is whether the subject of the evaluation poses a direct threat due to a mental disorder or disability; and/or whether, due to a medical condition or disability, there is evidence that the subject cannot safely and effectively perform the essential functions of their position.

If the examination finds that psychological conditions are causing/contributing to the threat posed by the subject, then consideration is given to mental health interventions to ameliorate symptoms and mitigate risk, and (to where appropriate), what accommodations the workplace may consider for the person to continue enrollment/employment.  Note that these issues and outcomes of a forensic psychological or psychiatric examination are not to be equated with the threat management process, which is an operational, problem-solving approach to preventing and mitigating risk (rather than predicting risk).  An effective threat management strategy is multi-dimensional in nature, and is not solely focused on mental health issues or interventions.

Finding a Qualified Examiner
Independent evaluations (for Direct Threat, Fitness for Duty, or forensic purposes) are highly specialized areas of practice and go well beyond administration of a standardized psychological test and a brief interview.  Board certification (e.g., ABPP) in forensic psychology would be good evidence of expertise, but it is not the only consideration.  As with all determinations of expertise, one must consider the relevant education, training, and experience of the professional in conducting these evaluations. The American Pychology-Law Society and the American Psychological Association Council of Representatives have developed and approved recognized specialty guidelines for forensic psychologists (see:  www.apa.org/practice/guidelines/forensic-psychology.pdf).

Professionals with experience in conducting pre-employment and/or fitness for duty evaluations MAY have relevant experience but those evaluations are not fully the same as a forensic/direct threat evaluation.  There are differing aspects of law and research that inform the different (but related) fields.  A former law enforcement officer, or physician or generalist psychologist is NOT competent to perform such evaluations.  However, each of those persons may have skills that may supplement a threat assessment/management process.

For educational institutions and for employers, we recommend that, before the need arises in a particular case, it is helpful to have already identified professionals with demonstrated expertise in this area and to have established referral arrangements with professionals.  In some areas of the country, these professionals may be few and far between so it will be important to seek out such resources before a critical need arises. Where possible, it is helpful to have a couple of qualified experts available to the institution, so that if one is not available in a timely manner, or has a conflict of interest, the other is available to provide the evaluation.

It is preferable to have these evaluations conducted by persons external to your organization, both to minimize perceptions of bias, and because few campuses have clinical services that are staffed with persons that are qualified to conduct the evaluations. Even where an institutions may have qualified experts on staff (e.g., with a university hospital/clinic, medical school or graduate program) there is significant value in utilizing an external evaluator to provide an objective and independent assessment of the case.  This greatly minimizes the potential for a conflict of interest, or any dual relationships that may have otherwise arisen.   

Finally, the issues involved with forensic/direct threat evaluations are many and varied, and there are significant aspects of law and professional standards that impact on ethical and lawful practice with such evaluations.  We recommend consulting with legal counsel (who has knowledge and experience of those issues) when considering such evaluations, to ensure compliance with relevant employment and educational laws and policies.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

School Threat Assessment: A Great Example in Los Angeles Schools



by Jeffrey W. Pollard, PhD, ABPP and Marisa R. Randazzo, PhD

Since the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, many schools, school districts, and legislators across the country are looking at whether school threat assessment programs could help enhance school safety.  As schools, communities, and legislators consider the merits of school threat assessment, we encourage them to take a look at the School Threat Assessment Response Team program that serves schools throughout Los Angeles county.  An article in the The New York Times describes the inner workings of this program, which was originally developed by the Los Angeles Police Department and is financed under California's Mental Health Services Act.  Reporter Erica Goode describes the program as “one of the most intensive efforts in the nation to identify the potential for school violence and take steps to prevent it.” 

“Threat assessment” – whether in a school, college, workplace, or the community – is essentially a systematic fact-finding process.  A threat assessment team addresses threats and other alarming behavior by gathering objective information, analyzing the information to determine if someone is planning to engage in violence, and if so, implementing a strategy to help solve the problems that are driving the person to consider violence in the first place.  The concept of using threat assessment to prevent school violence was developed by the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education, following their landmark study of school shootings that showed that prevention is possible.

 The School Threat Assessment Response Team program in Los Angeles is an excellent example of school threat assessment programs currently in operation at numerous schools and colleges across the country.  The Los Angeles program is noteworthy for how information is shared lawfully among agencies, for making assessments that are fact-based rather than based on stereotypes or profiling, and for the degree of follow-up they conduct to keep track of worrisome students and help connect them with resources to address their underlying needs.  For any school or school district looking to develop a school threat assessment program, the Los Angeles program offers a helpful model for guidance.  More details on setting up and operating a school threat assessment program can be found in "Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and Creating Safe School Climates," published by U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education.


Friday, December 21, 2012

Preventing Mass Violence

Is there anything we can do to prevent school shootings and mass violence?  Please click here for our article on what we can do to prevent these attacks. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Helping the Family of Fallen Virginia Tech Police Officer Deriek Crouse

On behalf of Major Gene Deisinger and our colleagues and friends at the Virginia Tech Police Department, we wanted to provide the latest information on funeral services and the memorial fund to help support the family of fallen Virginia Tech Police Department Officer Deriek Crouse:

Expressions of condolences to the Crouse family or to members of the Virginia Tech Police Department may be sent to VTpolice@vt.edu.
The funeral service will be held at 2 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 12, at Cassell Coliseum on the Virginia Tech campus.
A memorial fund has been established to support the needs of the family of Officer Crouse. Those wishing to contribute can mail checks, payable to “Deriek Crouse Memorial Fund,” to the address below:

National Bank of Blacksburg
Attn: Dana Sutphin
P.O. Box 90002
Blacksburg, VA 24062-9002

Those seeking more information about the fund should call 540-552-2011 and ask to speak with Dana Sutphin, branch manager.

Thank you to all who have expressed their support and concern.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Upcoming Training in Campus Threat Assessment Best Practices

Following the very popular COPS Office campus threat assessment training sessions run by Margolis, Healy & Associates -- we are once again offering a day-long training session on Best Practices in Campus Threat Assessment & Threat Management.   This session will be held on Thursday, January 12, 2012 and will be hosted by Goucher College in Baltimore, MD.  For more information - or to register - please CLICK HERE.

This session is open to all higher education personnel and local law enforcement officials.  Topics will include:
  • Current best practices in campus threat assessment and threat management and the new national standards. 
  • Case studies of targeted attacks. 
  • How to operate an effective campus threat assessment team.  
  • Steps to take in identifying, investigating, and evaluating threats and other disturbing behavior on campus.  
  • Developing and implementing case management plans to reduce risk. 
  • Case studies of prevented incidents.
  • Understanding legal issues in campus threat assessment and new legal developments.  
  • Finding solutions to common problems facing campus threat assessment teams.
Early Registration is $295 for registrations by December 31, 2011.  Registration after December 31, 2011 is $350.  Click here for more information or to register.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

JOB OPENINGS: Positions with NC State and Tidewater Community College

Two new job openings in higher ed threat assessment have just been posted:  

North Carolina State University (Raleigh NC) has posted a job opening for a counselor with an emphasis in threat assessment and threat management.  Click here for more information on the NC State position.  

Tidewater Community College (Virginia) has posted an opening for the Director of Threat Assessment and Staff Psychologist.  Click here for information on the Tidewater CC vacancy announcement.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Two New Threat Assessment Resources

Here are two new resources that we felt are worth highlighting, for those in the threat assessment field or who work with anyone in threat assessment:  

The first is an article in the 2011 issue of the URMIA Journal: "Campus Threat Assessment and Management Teams: What Risk Managers Need to Know Now."  The article covers the emerging standard of care in campus threat assessment, and identifies steps that risk managers can take to make their threat assessment process consistent with the standard of care.  While written for campus risk managers, the article is useful for a broader audience.  This article was co-authored by Jeff Nolan, Esq., Marisa Randazzo, PhD, and Gene Deisinger, Ph.D.

The second is an article from Police Chief magazine on the role of police psychologists as consultants to law enforcement agencies, including in threat assessment.  Gene Deisinger co-wrote this article's section on threat assessment and management.  It offers a great perspective on the various roles that psychologists can play in support of federal, state, and local law enforcement.

Monday, August 22, 2011

5 Pitfalls to Avoid in Threat Assessment

As a follow up to the first article in Higher Ed Impact on tips to make your threat assessment team more effective, Dr. Gene Deisinger discusses five common pitfalls that can plague higher ed threat assessment teams - and ways to avoid them.  According to this second article in Higher Ed Impact, 5 common pitfalls to avoid are:
  1. "Focusing solely on increased reporting
  2. Focusing only on students
  3. Reinventing the wheel
  4. Lack of due diligence in vetting possible vendors
  5. Failing to follow up, monitor, and assess whether the initial intervention was sufficient."
For the full article - including ways to avoid these pitfalls, please click here.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

3 Tips for Making Your Threat Assessment Team More Effective

In the August 4, 2011 edition of Academic Impressions' Higher Ed Impact, Dr. Gene Deisinger outlines three tips for making higher education threat assessment teams more effective, even in the face of budget cuts.  According to the article, the three strategies he recommends are: 
  1. "Define your team's mission and purpose clearly.
  2. Do more with what you already have by finding opportunities for greater collaboration between departments that provide resources and services to students.
  3. Cultivate a sense of shared purpose."
For more on these tips, read the full article here.