How to assess the threat of workplace violence — Lessons learned from the tragedy in Tucson Featured

3:40pm EDT March 2, 2011
How to assess the threat of workplace violence — Lessons learned from the tragedy in Tucson

January 8, 2011, Tucson, Arizona, Jared Loughner in a flurry of 9mm bullets had killed six people and wounded fourteen others outside of a supermarket during an event held by U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. This targeted violence with mass casualties had numerous warning signs, such as with many similar shootings involving the workplace, school-place, military bases, etc. Were there significant warning signs with Loughner? Could Loughner’s mass shooting have been prevented?

Violence does not occur in a vacuum. Smart Business spoke to Dr. Manny Tau, clinical and forensic psychologist specialized in threat assessments and a team member of Talon Executive Services, Inc., for some thoughts and resources for solutions.

What were the warning signs that Loughner would commit an act of violence?

An initial scan for a threat assessment of physical violence involves three major components: threat posturing, preparatory behaviors and rehearsal fantasies. Loughner had significant ‘hits’ in all three components. He had:

  • Scrawled threatening phrases on a form letter from Giffords that thanked Loughner for attending a 2007 event
  • Purchased a semi-automatic handgun on November 30, 2010
  • Previously purchased a shotgun earlier that year
  • Purchased ammunition within 24-hours of the mass shooting
  • Espoused bizarre and conspiratorial thoughts via multiple social media sites
  • Made farewell contacts via voicemail and social media
  • A significant history of bizarre behaviors and major mental health issues
  • Repeated problematic contacts and interventions by parents
  • Previously attended community college and law enforcement training

A more comprehensive threat assessment reveals even more information.

Clearly, evidence indicated that Loughner’s targeted violence had not occurred in a vacuum, that there were significant longstanding warning signs, and that there is a good to high probability his mass shooting could have been prevented.

When should you have a threat assessment?

When you observe predatory behavior accompanied by threats of violence. Business owners may be unaware that such behavior is happening at their company, so there should be a system in place where employees feel comfortable reporting this type of behavior. Even then, some employers may not know the proper protocol for investigating and addressing the problem — this is where a professional service comes into play.

What resources are available to companies concerned with violence in the workplace?

The use of a threat assessment professional can greatly assist in the workplace, particular if the he or she is a forensic psychologist specializing in threat assessments.

Federal Regulations and California Civil Code, 45 CFR 164.512(j) and Cal. Civ. Code 56.10(c)(19), allows a psychologist to overcome any HIPAA, Confidential Medical Information Act, or other disclosure of information barriers so long as the disclosures were necessary to lessen a threat. This allows not only the coordinating and sharing of important information to mitigate a threat potential in the workplace, but also provides an opportunity for case management and contacts/exchanges of information with various outside resources associated with the escalating employee, e.g., medical and mental health providers, qualified medical examiners, or fitness for duty evaluators.

For more information about threat assessments and active threat management, please contact Talon Executive Services, Inc.

Dr. Manny Tau is a clinical & forensic psychologist specialized in threat assessments and a team member of Talon Executive Services, Inc. Reach Talon at, (800) 808-2566, or visit Talon Executive Services, Inc..