THE MAGAZINE

Teaming Up to Reduce Risk

By Matthew Harwood

When a former Iowa State University employee applied for a weapon permit late last year in another jurisdiction, the school had cause for concern. The employee had recently been fired for behavior that negatively affected his work and the work of others. Fortunately, Commander Gene Deisinger, a member of the university police’s Special Operations Unit and a licensed psychologist, had already reached out to the local county sheriff’s office, where he knew some officers. He had asked that they contact him if the former employee applied for a weapon permit, explaining that his threat assessment team checked the subject’s background and found worrisome signs that the person could pose a threat to himself or others. 

Due to Deisinger’s proactive approach, the sheriff’s office kept him in the loop. He was informed when the former employee applied for a gun permit, and Deisinger was told that, based on information the sheriff’s office had locally, the application was denied.

Informed of this development, Deisinger’s threat assessment team members could reassess the risk. They asked themselves, “Is there a nexus of threat to our locale?” With their subject unable to procure a weapon, and no evidence of other access to weapons or changes in the situation, they decided that there was no need to adjust security measures on campus at that time, though they would continue to monitor the case.

Iowa State’s program has been in place for years, but other campuses are only now recognizing the potential benefits of threat assessment teams. They are acting in response to the 2007 Virginia Tech tragedy in which a disturbed student, Seung Hui Cho, murdered 32 people and then killed himself. 

These teams, sometimes referred to as threat management teams or critical analysis teams, provide schools with a formal mechanism for analyzing sensitive information on troubled persons to assess whther there is a threat and to develop a plan of response. 

In the Beginning

The concept of threat assessment teams is not new. The first behavioral threat assessment unit was created inside the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in 1989 by then Captain Bob Martin. Not long after, the idea found its way onto college and university campuses, says Martin, who is now vice president of Gavin de Becker and Associates, a leading threat assessment and management firm.

Some of the more prominent universities that adopted the approach include Arizona State, Iowa State, Pennsylvania State, and the University of Maryland. Each of these schools shared similar advice about how to establish effective programs. Their suggestions track recommendations from the Virginia Tech task force and from other private sector behavioral analysis experts interviewed for this article. Key issues include how to form a team, how to raise awareness, and how to work a case until it is neutralized.

Team Formation

Team members must bring to the table the right spectrum of skills. They should be recruited from across the campus community to make the team as representational as possible. But team members must not only be knowledgeable; they must also be senior level personnel with the authority to take action. Anyone selected to serve on a behavioral threat assessment team should be “at a level where they can commit or make a decision for their organization,” says Martin.

Virginia Tech had no formal threat assessment team, but it did have what it called the Care Team, responsible for identifying and helping students with problems. That team, however, lacked a representative from the Virginia Tech Police Department.

As a result, the Care Team had no knowledge that Cho had been warned twice against stalking, “that he had threatened suicide, that a magistrate had issued a temporary detention order, and that Cho had spent a night at [a psychiatric ward] as a result of such detention order,” said the Virginia Tech Review Panel’s report.

The review panel recommended that key players in any threat assessment team should include representatives from law enforcement, human resources, student and academic affairs, legal counsel, and mental health functions.

Similarly, New Jersey’s Campus Security Task Force, in its own report on campus violence, recommended assembling a team broad enough that “there is a greater possibility of identifying a student who may be displaying patterns of behavior that cause concern.”

In including a representative from human resources, the team should also keep in mind that threats don’t just come from the student body; they come from faculty and staff too, says Deisinger.

As the recent shooting at Northern Illinois University (NIU) proves, threats can also arise from former students with no history of problems. A former award-winning graduate student, Steven P. Kazmierczak, was described as “gentle” and “hard-working” with “no record of trouble.” On Valentine’s Day, he burst into a lecture hall and shot five students dead before taking his own life. Because Kazmierczak, who was no longer a student at NIU, had no known history of aggressive or violent behavior, it would have been impossible for him to have appeared on a behavioral threat assessment team’s radar, no matter how representational of the university the team was.

Once membership is determined, officials must next establish team structure. No one should have significantly more power than anyone else in the group, says Martin. That does not preclude having a leader, but because each member of the team shares the same relative status within the university, the team works best when it functions more as a democracy than as a dictatorship. “You want an environment where people are comfortable sharing their point of view,” he says.

Jim Cawood, president of Factor One and the current president of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals, agrees. It’s easy to form teams, he says. “The question is once they’re drafted and sitting in a room together, do they truly get along?

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