Violence in the Workplace: Do people just “snap”?

WESTBOROUGH, MA June 2, 2018  Violence in the workplace is commonplace but has taken a back seat in the setting of recent school shootings. Research on the “lethal employee” is becoming more reliable in the aftermath of of workplace violence. Nevertheless people commit murder in their workplace more than ever.  What should people do if they are worried about a co-worker becoming violent.  There are signs that someone is loosing control and may be thinking of violence.  A list of potential factors is taken below from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security publication from 2008. The term “going postal” refers to a workplace shooter or act of violence.  It evolved from workplace violence in the U.S. Postal service in the 1980’s according to a report published in 2008.

“One theory was that the post office was such a high-pressure work environment that it drove people insane. In the years to come, other cases of murderous rages by mailmen cemented the idea in the public mind. “Going postal” became a synonym for flipping out under pressure.”

RECOGNIZING POTENTIAL WORKPLACE VIOLENCE
“An active shooter in your workplace may be a current or former employee, or an acquaintance of a current or former employee. Intuitive managers and coworkers may notice characteristics of potentially violent behavior in an employee. Alert your Human Resources Department if you believe an employee or coworker exhibits potentially violent behavior” (2008)

Indicators of Potential Violence by an Employee Employees typically do not just “snap,” but display indicators of potentially violent behavior over time. If these behaviors are recognized, they can often be managed and treated. Potentially violent behaviors by an employee may include one or more of the following (this list of behaviors is not comprehensive, nor is it intended as a mechanism for diagnosing violent tendencies):
• Increased use of alcohol and/or illegal drugs
• Unexplained increase in absenteeism; vague physical complaints
• Noticeable decrease in attention to appearance and hygiene
• Depression / withdrawal
• Resistance and overreaction to changes in policy and procedures
• Repeated violations of company policies
• Increased severe mood swings
• Noticeably unstable, emotional responses
• Explosive outbursts of anger or rage without provocation
• Suicidal; comments about “putting things in order”
• Behavior which is suspect of paranoia, (“everybody is against me”)
• Increasingly talks of problems at home
• Escalation of domestic problems into the workplace; talk of severe financial problems
• Talk of previous incidents of violence
• Empathy with individuals committing violence
• Increase in unsolicited comments about firearms, other dangerous weapons and violent crimes

U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (2008). Active Shooter – How to Respond
Bovsum, M. (2010) NY Daily News. Mailman massacre: 14 die after Patrick Sherrill ‘goes postal’ in 1986 shootings. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/mailman-massacre-14-die-patrick-sherrill-postal-1986-shootings-article-1.204101 Taken May 19, 2018
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On Police Identification of the mentally abnormal

How to recognizeWestborough, MA March 28, 2018 The police-mental health interaction continues to be one that neither party exhibit great confidence nor take great pride in.  Myths abound about how to treat those so afflicted – especially among law enforcement personnel. I have provided classes for LEO’s and generally they are not well attended and tend to bore the average officer. In Maine, LEO’s are required to have regular training in working with the mentally ill in order to maintain their LEO credentials. Other states in New England have similar requirements and now focus on psychological first aid and deescalation protocols.  I have presented on topics of assessment of risk and dangerousness with some success.  In- service training must be short and to the point or students will quickly lose interest.
The photograph above shows the cover of a guide book first written in 1954 that was instructional for police officers.  It was written to teach the law enforcement officers of the day to recognize signs of mental illness then defined as “abnormal people”.  It was written by 2 Louisiana State University psychologists and first used by a police agencies in the late 1950’s.  I have been trying to find a copy of this early version that was re-published in 1979 and now costs over $100.  It was written because police officers needed training and experience identifying features of psychiatric emergency. This was thought to reduce the uncertainty, fear and confusion around handling these cases by providing education including signs and symptoms.
After nearly 60 years, law enforcement is not significantly closer to understanding the mentally ill than they were in 1954. A colleague police psychologist Leo Polizotti, Ph.D. has an original copy of this booklet although I have not seen it as yet.  Dr. Polizotti provides consultation to law enforcement, officer selection interviews, and teaches a proactive approach psychological resilience to police officers that can afford them greater career satisfaction, professionalism, and longevity. Dr. Polizotti is tasked with supporting officers who are exposed to the daily grind of violence, suicide, homelessness, and its cumulative impact on a cop’s personal narrative.  His model suggests a fundamental change in how police officers interpret their experiences over time and acceptance of what cannot change and healthy adaptation.  He is a great asset to the Central Massachusetts community and across New England and espouses a model of stress resistance through adaptation.
“In 1954, the National Association for Mental Health first issued the book “How To Recognize and Handle Abnormal People: A Manual for the Police Officer.” Included were techniques on dealing with all kinds of “abnormal persons,” from psychopaths, drug addicts, and the “mentally retarded” to civil protestors and those involved in family disturbances.”  Posted by David Pescovitz, 2015
Text from 1954 How To Recognize and Handle Abnormal People: A Manual for the Police Officer is provided below.  It points out many of the outward signs of disturbed thinking often an underlying feature of those with mental illness – in this case something called ideas of reference. These signs are common among persons with early paranoia and are sometimes missed – even by members of the immediate family. This is still a common symptom of mental illness today and is considered to be the prodrome to a more serious loss of contact with reality. Ultimately, it comes down to who is at more risk for violence?  And how can we be sure?
It takes a healthy and educated police officer to observe, understand, and control unpredictable situations. Officers are required to adapt to the demands of individual calls for service.  A colleague Dr. Leo Polizotti has identified a model for coping with the strain of police service.  He cites the importance of avoiding apathy, withdrawal and bitterness on the job.  “Understanding the 3 C’s of hardiness, Challenge / Commitment and Control will assist officers to manage stress more effectively, resulting in fewer emotional and medical problems. By viewing each new situation as a challenge, instead of a threat, you become committed to that challenge. You can readily see yourself in control and better able to deal with the situation. You will enhance your “hardiness” or resistance to stress” Polizotti, 2018.   
“He may think, for example, that announcements made over the radio have something to do with him personally. He may even hear his name mentioned. These are called ideas of reference which, of course, means that the patient thinks people are referring to him in one way or another. In the beginning, ideas of reference may occur only occasionally, but they gradually become the rule rather than the exception, and finally they may develop into definite delusions of persecution or grandeur.”
The list below are the signs of “abnormal persons” that are printed in the booklet published in 1954:
  • He shows big changes in his behavior.
  • He has strange /losses of memory, such as where he is or what day it is.
  • He thinks people are plotting against him, or has grand ideas about himself.
  • He talks to himself or hears voices.
  • He thinks people are watching him or talking about him.
  • He sees visions or smells strange odors or has peculiar tastes.
  • He has complaints of bodily ailments that are not possible.
  • He behaves in a way which is dangerous to himself or others.
Interestingly, the bullet points above remain accurate today with the understanding that too many individuals suffering with a major mental illness also have substance abuse/dependence.  It is this fact that confounds most LEO – mentally ill encounters.  “Beyond the rigors of police work, lie the demands of a personal life, specifically a wife or husband and children. Maintaining a healthy and happy family life is on its own a demanding responsibility. Add these powerful life stressors and demands to the burdens of police work and  an officer may begin to feel the weight upon his or her shoulders.” Polizotti, 2018.  Emotional and physical strength and endurance requires hardiness that comes from personal responsibility and comittment to excellence and peak performance.  Greater focus on sobriety – including opioid and alcohol dependence is essential. If this can be maintained mental illness may remit to the extent that subjects can remain in the community. Programs like A.A., N.A., and other 12-step groups are free and often afford subjects great support.  In most cities there are 12-step meetings every day morning, noon and night.  The problem is getting people to realize they have a problem.  Even airports hold A.A. meetings for travelers in need of the 12-steps. We are working on a replacement manual like the one cited in this post.


Polizotti, L. (2018) Personal Life Demands. Presentation – Direct Decision Institute.
How To Recognize and Handle Abnormal People: A Manual for the Police Officer (1954) Matthews, R. M.D. and Rowland, L. Ph.D. NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR MENTAL HEALTH, INC. 10 COLUMBUS CIRCLE, NEW YORK 19, N. Y.
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Predicting the next mass shooting: do people just “snap”?

bigstock-Mental-illness-in-word-collage-072313WESTBOROUGH, MA January 21, 2018  Do people just “snap”? Rarely according to most literature I have read and published. The expression of violence is elicited slowly following a prolonged period of marginalized aloneness along with underlying resentment and anger according to Michael Sefton, Ph.D. This takes a great toll on relationships, loss of trust and a growing persecutory narrative that may become delusional.  The gunman in the Las Vegas mass homicide was described as narcissistic – a personality disorder vulnerable perceived rejection or disrespect often resulting in sudden rage, denial, decreased rational thinking, accusatory blaming, and often marked denial of responsibility. In the Las Vegas shooting it has been learned that the gunman had recently sustained a significant financial loss although its link to the people he killed remains a mystery.  There is typically some specific event that may trigger a violent event that could have been planned over months or years and evolve like the expression of some genetic permutation.

“People do not just “snap.” When something horrible happens, like a murder or violent attack, we naturally look for a cause. “Snapping” is an easy way to describe what is actually a complex, yet understandable chain of events. Research into violent attacks and the behavior of the attackers can shed some light on how one moves down a pathway toward violence.” Swink, 2010

The capacity for behavioral science to predict when the next mass shooting will occur remains unrefined. Yet, by studying the cases of mass murder that have occurred in the past 5 years there are important pre-incident behaviors that may foreshadow a coming terminal event. Often there are people who know precisely what is going to happen.  In our study of a domestic violence homicide that took place in Maine, 2011 we were told by the aunt of the murderer that she expected her nephew to kill himself but expect that he would do it in front of his wife and children.  What ultimately happened was a murder suicide.  Steven Lake killed his wife and 2 children and made an attempt to incinerate their bodies before local police arrived.  At that point he made himself comfortable and ended his life and the Lake family timeline.


Swink, J (2010) The Pentagon Shooting: They Don’t “Just Snap” Posted Mar 06, 2010 Taken Jan 4, 2018

Public Awareness Needed for Meaningful Jail Diversion

teachinginprison

“If mental illness drives the violent behavior than all weapons and substance use must be carefully controlled and eliminated.” Sefton, 2017

Westborough, MA December 21, 2017 Jail diversion is a hot topic across the country even here in Massachusetts. Since July, 2017 the Massachusetts Legislature has passed sweeping changes in the Criminal Justice System.  Locally and across the country, the numbers of persons incarcerated for minor offenses and drug crimes has grown in some cases exponentially. Many of these individuals have mental illness or drug abuse in addition to their criminality. The interaction between poly-substance abuse or dependence and exacerbation of underlying mental health symptoms is complex and multifactorial. The interaction of the two is sometime lethal as reported by the Globe Spotlight team It is the focus of mental health advocates and criminal justice experts nationwide as it pertains to jail diversion, alternative restitution and reduced police use of force. In Massachusetts, there is a move away from mandatory minimum sentences for all drug crimes except for those involving the sale and distribution of narcotics. Arguably, the impact on behavioral functioning when persons are gripped with co-occurring illness, such as alcoholism, is a recurrent problem for law enforcement and first responders. I have written about the impact of co-occurring illness such as alcoholism on mental and behavioral health is previously published posts here on Word press Human Behavior (Sefton, 2017). It is difficult to uncover which comes first – the addiction or the diagnosed mental illness and yet these are inextricably linked in terms of the strain on public resources and health risk to those so afflicted. Why is this important?

The importance of treatment for substance dependence and mental illness cannot be understated as violent encounters between law enforcement and the mentally ill have been regularly sensationalized. The general public is looking for greater public safety while at the same time MH advocates insist that with the proper treatment violent police encounters may be reduced and jail diversion may be achieved. The referral and treatment infrastructure needed to provide a continuum of care in this growing population is available in very few places across America.

Yet in places like Bexar County, Texas – including San Antonio and 21 other towns or cities – the county jail population has dropped by over 20 percent as a result of crisis intervention training for police officers and mobile mental health teams to intervene with those in crisis. I have seen this for myself during a visit with the San Antonio Police Department where I rode with two members of the Mental Health Unit – Officers Ernest Stevens and Joseph Smarro. These men are exemplary in their assessment and intervention skill for keeping identified subjects off radar screens and out of the revolving door of the county jail.  It takes ongoing training, medical and psychiatric infrastructure, community compassion, and active engagement with members of the community to fly under the radar and effectively reduce the jail population. When necessary those most in need must have 24-hour availability for detoxification, emergency mental health, and access to basic needs such as food, clothing, and medicine. In San Antonio, they offer so much more including pre-employment training, extended housing, interview preparation including clothes, and opportunity for jobs.

The unpredictability of behavior by those who carry a “dual” diagnosis has emerged as a confounding factor in the criminal justice system raising the specter of frustration over the limitations within the system. Jail diversion programs and treatment options are needed in order to retain public safety goals and provide for needs of the mentally ill and substance dependent. In Massachusetts, cities and towns are grappling with how best to intervene with the mentally ill in terms of alternative restitution for drug-related misdemeanor crimes in lieu of mandatory jail sentences that many crimes currently require. The Massachusetts legislature has taken up Criminal Justice Reform and passed a bill in late 2017 making changes in the mandatory minimum sentencing laws.  Some believe, as much as 20-40 percent of all incarcerated persons suffer with mental health diagnoses and are not getting the treatment they require. To provide a bare bones system would add billions to state and federal dollars spent on the needs of inmates at a time when measurable outcomes for in house care are limited.

In my practice, I see many cases of co-occurring pain syndromes with other physical debilities such as stroke or traumatic brain injury. Some of these cases are substance dependent and live lonely, chaotic lives.  Generally the emotional impact of two or more diagnosed illnesses yields a greatly reduced capacity for adaptive coping and puts a great stress on the individual system. The importance of addressing co-occurring substance abuse or dependence is now well recognized and with treatment can result in healthy decision-making, growth in maturity, and greater self-awareness. If legislators have a serious desire to reduce statewide numbers of incarcerated persons a comprehensive plan must be considered for both pre-arrest and post-arrest. Programs greater understanding of addiction and added treatment options must be explored through a joint public and private initiative.

Mental and Physical Health Screening

At time of arrest the individual must have some level of mental health assessment if mental illness is suspected or documented. When I was a police officer prior to 2015 we often asked the D.A. to provide a court clinic assessment of the suspect to rule out suicidal ideation or delusional thinking. This must also include a screening for dangerousness especially when a subject is arrested for intimate partner abuse. Next a health history questionnaire should be undertaken to screen for co-occurring illness – both physical and mental. If a diabetic suspect is held without access to his insulin he is at great risk of death from stroke. Similarly, a person arrested for assault who suffers from paranoid ideation is at greater risk of acting violently without access to psychiatric medication. Finally, an alcoholic brought to the jail with a blood alcohol level greater than 250 is at great risk for seizures and cardiac arrhythmias when delirium tremens begin 6-8 hours after his last drink. The risk to personal health in each of the scenarios above must be taken seriously and the obtained data should be factually corroborated. Police departments across the United States are pairing up with private agencies to provide in-house evaluation and follow-up of individuals who fall on the borderline and may not be easily assessed by the officer in the field.

Diversion Safety Plan with Mandated Revocation

Next, the probation and parole department must obtain an accurate legal history prior to consideration for bail. A nationwide screen for warrants and criminal history based on previous addresses is essential. In many places these are being done routinely. In the case of someone being arrested for domestic violence he may have no convictions thus no finding of criminal history. For these individuals the dangerousness assessment may bring forth red flag data needed for greater public safety resulting in protection from abuse orders, mandated psychotherapy, and in some cases, no bail confinement when indicated. Releasing the person arrested for domestic violence without a viable safety plan increases the risk to the victim and her family, as well as the general public – including members of law enforcement.

Bail, Confinement, Mandated Treatment

There is some thinking that higher amounts of bail may lessen the proclivity of some offenders to breach the orders of protection drafted to protect victims and should result in revocation of bail and immediate incarceration when these occur. Mandated treatment may be more successful when legal charges are held as leverage where after 6 months of sober living and regular attendance at 12-step recovery meetings charges can be dismissed or modified to each individual case.  This takes a complete overhaul of the front end of criminal justice system and requires buy-in by judges, district attorneys, and individual family members.

When it comes lack of compliance and repeated domestic violence, I have proposed a mandatory DV Abuse Registry that may be accessed by law enforcement to uncover the secret past of men who would control and abuse their intimate partners. This database would also include information on the number of active restraining orders and the expected offender’s response to the “stay away” order. In cases where the victim decides to drop charges there should be a mandatory waiting period of 90 days. During this waiting period the couple may cohabitate but the perpetrator must be attending a weekly program of restorative justice therapy, 12-step recovery and substance abuse education. Violations of these court ordered services are tantamount to violation of the original protection order (still in place) and victim safety plan and may result in revocation of bail. If the waiting period passes and the perpetrator has met the conditions of his bail than he may undergo an “exit” interview to determine whether or not the protection order / jail diversion plan may be extended or whether he/she has met all requirements.  In any case further police encounters will be scrutinized and prior charges may be re-instated or filed as needed.

Michael Sefton


Sefton, M. (2017) Human Behavior Blogpost: https://msefton.wordpress.com/2017/03/30/police-are-building-bridges-and-throwing-life-savers/ taken December 10, 2017

Mentally ill American’s and their proclivity to act out against authority

Westborough, MA December 15, 2017 The popular press is filled with ideas and criticism about what best to do with those afflicted with mental illness.  The resources available to law enforcement are practically nothing in the average community.  I have answered calls in west central Massachusetts where a citizen asked for referrals for counseling for a family member who was addicted to something or other.  Too often I had nothing to offer.  Generally speaking unless someone has money to pay for psychiatric services they are left to languish on the waiting lists of community mental health centers.  In emergencies many show up or a taken by ambulance to the emergency mental health center nearest their place of residence.  This usually ends up costing them thousands of dollars and hours of their time only to be told they must follow-up with a primary care physician. The entire process can be demeaning and inhumane.

In a prior post I have advocated for the use of 12-step recovery programs to help those with substance abuse and dependence.  These are not psychotherapy and are often leaderless meetings. There are have daily meetings in every city and town.  12-step programs teach the understanding addiction and loss of control from addition, coping by taking one moment at a time in order to remain substance free and belief in a higher power. In many cases new members of AA or NA – or any compulsive behavior recovery group – may have a sponsor who comes forth and provide 24/hour support. I encourage family members to attend meetings with their loved one in show of support. Sobriety can begin tonight at the 7 PM meeting in Watertown, Worcester or Anytown, USA.

The interaction of substance abuse and mental illness is complex.  Persons with drug and alcohol addiction must be expected to become sober with the help of substance abuse treatment and family support. The risk of violence and suicide declines when sobriety can be maintained.   Michael Sefton, 2017

“We have to get American police to rethink how they handle encounters with the mentally ill. Training has to change” according to Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, an independent research organization devoted to improving policing. People carrying a dual diagnosis are at greatest risk for self-destruction – including intimate partner violence and suicide by cop.


Sefton, M (2017) Blog post: https://msefton.wordpress.com/2017/01/16/police-as-therapist-the-inherent-risk-of-unconditional-positive-regard/ Taken 17 November 2017

Officer resilience and career success with less burnout

Mike Sefton photo
Michael Sefton, Ph.D. in Guangzhou, China

WESTBOROUGH, MA December 9, 2017 Resilience in police training is an added lesson designed to enhance the careers of officers-in-training. According to Leo Polizotti, Ph.D. resilience refers to professional hardiness that is protective against career burnout and raises both professionalism and job satisfaction.

It is essential to help individual officers through the tough times and enhances job satisfaction.  In the case of traumatic events – officer resilience is essential for a healthy response to a critical incident.  In the long run, physical health and well-being are the underpinnings of an emotionally resilient professional who will be there over and again – when called upon for those once in a lifetime calls that most of us will never have to answer.

Emotional resilience is defined as the the capacity to integrate the breadth of police training and experience with healthy, adaptive coping, optimism, mental flexibility and healthy resolution of the traumatic events. In general, resilient people are self-reliant and have positive role models from whom they have learned to handle the stressful events all police officers encounter. In its absence a police officer experiences irritability, brooding, anger and sometimes resentment toward his own agency and “the system” for all its failures.  The lack of emotional resilience leads to officer burn-out.

“Your biggest risk of burnout is the near constant exposure to the “flight or fight response” inherent to the job (running code, engaging and managing the agitated, angry, and irrational, or any other of your responsibilities that can cause you to become hypervigilant). Add the very real tension of the politics and stresses inside the office and a dangerous mix is formed. The pressures and demands of your job can take a toll on your emotional wellbeing and quality of life and burnout will often follow.” Olsen & Wasilewski, 2014

It is well documented that flooding the body with stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol play a role in police officer health and well-being. “Stress and grief are problems that are not easily detected or easily resolved. Severe depression, heart attacks, and the high rates of divorce, addiction, and suicide in the fire and EMS services proves this” according to Peggy Rainone who provides seminars in grief and surviving in EMS. (Sefton, 2013). There are various treatments for stress-related burnout including peer support, biofeedback for reduced sympathetic dysfunction, and professional psychotherapy. “Being exposed to repetitive stress leads to changes in the brain chemistry and density that affect emotional and physical health.” (Olsen, 2014)  Improved training and early career support and resilience is essential for long term health of first responders including the brave men and women in blue.


Polizotti, L. (2017) Psychological Resilience: From Surviving to Thriving in a Law
Enforcement Career. Presentation. Direct Decision Institute

Olsen, A and Wasilewski, M. Police One.com (2014) Blog post: https://www.policeone.com/health-fitness/articles/7119431-6-ways-to-beat-burnout-in-a-police-officer/ Taken December 9, 2017

Rainone, P. (2013) Emergency workers at risk. (website) http://www.emsvilliage.com/articles/article.cfm?ID=176. Taken 12-1-2013

Sefton, M. Domestic Violence Homicide: What role does exposure to trauma play in terminal rage? Blog Post: https://wordpress.com/post/msefton.wordpress.com/505 Taken December 9, 2017.

Police response to Domestic Violence

Police officers are regarded as the front line first responders to family conflict and domestic violence.  For better or worse, the police have an opportunity to effect change whenever they enter into the domestic foray – whether an arrest is made or not.  This affords them a window into the chaos within the effected family system and the opportunity to bring calm to crisis.  In many cases, the correct response to intimate partner violence should include aftermath intervention when the dust has settled from the crisis that brought police to this threshold. At these times the communication between family and police may be operationalized, improved and redefined.  When this is done it establishes a baseline of trust, empathy, and resilience.