Connecting the Dots May Create a Scary Picture

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In the days following violent incidents such as school shootings or workplace violence, there’s a lot of analysis. Most often, it’s built around trying to find a cause or an explanation for whatever happened.

Invariably, as law enforcement investigates and media interviews people who had been around the perpetrator, patterns begin to emerge. The initial “what could make him do such a thing” is quickly replaced with an escalating history of strange or antisocial behavior. We discover that he had been accumulating weapons, researching past acts of violence on the web, or had tortured animals as a child. We read thinly veiled threats that had been posted on social media in the weeks leading up the incident, performance reviews that mention behavior problems, and comments from co-workers about “how he gave me the creeps.”

Then somebody poses the inevitable and obvious questions: with all these signs, why is it nobody saw this coming? Why didn’t anyone alert the authorities? Why didn’t those authorities act? How was someone with X in his history allowed to do Y, when common sense suggests that would be a bad thing? The dots were all visible, but nobody took the time to connect them into a clear image of a very dangerous individual.

Nearly everyone recognizes that connecting those dots is the missing model in creating a system to protect schools, workplaces, and houses of worship. A behavior noticed in one setting may be a minor cause for concern, but a collection of behaviors in multiple settings should set off alarm bells. However, it’s difficult to get multiple entities to share data. Within law enforcement, individual departments may be reluctant to share information with neighboring jurisdictions, or those at different levels, such as local and state police.

Even within organizations, there may be silos that make it difficult to see all the dots. Different departments and managers have different areas of responsibility. Each department may notice that an employee is displaying an obvious red flag, but if there’s no communication about it between departments … no “are you seeing the same things I am?” … that information becomes useless.

What employers, facility operators, and their communities need is a cooperative approach for dealing with behavioral information that may be used to identify individuals who may be planning some type of violence. That doesn’t necessarily imply a punitive approach. In most cases, those who commit violent acts such as school shootings are in desperate need of mental health services, and some kind of team approach to threat assessment may allow interventions long before someone carries out a plan for violence.

Obviously, such an approach must protect everyone’s legal rights and not turn into a means for wrongful accusations. One possible model is what’s used in communities where law enforcement and the judicial system have begun to collaborate in efforts to intervene in domestic violence cases. It involves training about the nature of such violence, standardized assessments and questions to determine the potential for lethality, and a commitment to take “lower-level” crimes seriously so the violence doesn’t worsen.

As a former violent crimes detective who investigated too many homicides and serious assaults within families, I invariably found that my case followed a long, escalating series of police runs. Officers might arrest an offender for an initial assault, but judges would return a light sentence, and the offender would believe they wouldn’t be held accountable. When the judge instead issued a several penalty and specific interventions, future violence was less likely.

I encourage companies and other organizations to become more aware of the warning signs of violent behavior and to encourage sharing of information between departments or managers. They should also have policies on what to do if they become aware of threats, or if an employee is arrested for a violent crime such as domestic violence. In addition, they should reach out to local law enforcement or other agencies to see how information and concerns might be shared.

If we’re going to prevent workplace shootings and other violent incidents, we need to work together in a cooperative fashion. All parties must recognize their responsibility to the safety of the broader community, and join together to share their “dots.” It makes far more sense to connect those dots and head off an act of violence than to realize later on that what happened could have been prevented.

Mike McCarty is CEO of Danville-based Safe Hiring Solutions.

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