Violence prediction: Keeping the radar sites on those who would do us harm

crosshairsWESTBOROUGH, MA May 20, 2018 In response to recent acts of both terrorism and recurrent gun violence by home-grown psychopaths more should be done to maintain greater control over potentially violent persons. In the Las
Vegas concert venue and the more recent Texas church massacre it becomes
increasingly clear that predicting violence is practically impossible. At least this is
what we are led to believe. And yet when it comes to domestic violence
homicide the similarities in cases are almost carbon copy.
In the end, there is always at least a single person who knows what is about to happen and often does nothing to stop it. Whether this duplicity stems from cultural beliefs that what happens behind closed doors is nobody’s busy change in the way in which law enforcement manages these cases is essential. The buy in from police, legislators, judges, probation, and society needs to be fully endorsed for real change to happen and for safety plans to work. Many states across America are planning to enact “red flag” rules that will remove weapons from individuals with a known history of domestic violence e.g. choking spouse during fight. These behaviors toward a victim instill fear and point to the perilous danger that exists.
“Someone with a history, particularly a continuing history of violence, can be presumed to be dangerous.” Frederick Neuman, MD
Coercion and Control
Lenore Walker is a psychologist at the Domestic Violence Institute has published a theoretical description of the coercion and control model of DV. Victims are young and vulnerable to being emotionally and physically controlled. The Texas killer Devin Patrick Kelley had all the makings of a violent abuser from the time he was in high school and only now are people willing to talk about his darker side. Kelley was separated from his second wife who was just 19. Victims like this are often kept away from their families, not allowed to work, or when working are not permitted to handle their own funds. Some victims have to explain every cell phone call or text message they make or receive often being met with jealous fury. By robbing their sense of self keeps intimate partners emotionally isolated and insecure. They are often led to believe they could not live on their own and the children they share will be lost to them if they choose to leave. This “so called” male privilege keeps his partner marginalized and in servitude. It appears at first glance that Kelley was looking for the mother of his currently estranged wife likely enraged over steps taken to keep them apart as the divorce progressed through the courts.
Occasionally police or children’s services are called when intimidation and threats become violent. It is important to provide aftermath intervention and follow-up with families where domestic violence or chronic substance abuse occurs or families tend to disappear. Change is required to pay closer attention to those with whom law enforcement has frequent contact. Over and over
surviving family members speak of coercion and control on behalf of the abused.  Lives will be saved when society takes a closer look at red flag violence – these are the preincident indicators that violence and domestic violence homicide are possible. This is not new data nor are the stories very different.
I speak to police agencies and individual officers about DV and DVH offering detail from the psychological autopsy research we conducted on a sensational and tragic case in Dexter, Maine in which Stephen Lake killed his 35-year old spouse after 10 years of marriage along with their 2 children. The Lake case was very much like the Kelley murders in terms of the cycle of abuse and its early onset. It was thought that Lake was intending to go on a killing spree but was interrupted in the act by an observant police officer. Recently a police officer participating in the statewide DV task force in Vermont asked whether there is a single most important factor or predictor to the risk of DVH? Some believe the fear of being killed by her spouse and abject cruelty toward step children raise the bar significantly and as such are worthy of crafting one’s DV report and request for orders of protection around. But keeping the victim and her abuser on the radar screen will also reduce her fear and loneliness and offer greater protection. Other risk factors include: choking and recurrent
sexual violence – although victims seldom disclose this out of guilt and fear of not being believed.
People knew what might happen
The Psychological Autopsy of Stephen Lake consisted of over 200 hours of interviews with immediate family members on both sides. Stephen’s aunt was quoted as saying “I never thought he would take the kids” in reference to an acknowledgment of his depression and anger at the impending divorce. She believed Lake would take his own life in front of his wife and children as a final act of punishment they would never forget. But he went far beyond that as we again saw in the small church in Texas this week. We are getting better at teaching children and families that if the see something they should say something. This is the trademark line of the Transportation Safety Administration in its fight against terrorism. The same might be taught to neighbors and friends when domestic violence is suspected or known to be occurring. If you see something than it is incumbent upon each of us to do something to help those in harms way.

Neuman, F.  (2012) Is It Possible to Predict Violent Behavior? Can a psychiatric examination predict, and prevent, a mass murder? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fighting-fear/201212/is-it-possible-predict-violent-behavior Taken May 12, 2018
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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

The myths and risks to individuals with mental illness

WESTBOROUGH, MA April 8, 2018 The myths attributed to persons afflicted with mental illness need to be directly addressed and corrective programs must evolve provide enhanced understanding and awareness of mental health.  Police officers encounter citizens with mental illness daily and often are called upon to calm a volatile situation often with very little formal training. This fact is changing as more police officers are trained in Psychological First Aid and Crisis Intervention Training – 2 programs that afford front line officers with the behavioral observation skill and communication necessary to reduce risk to police and the public from highly charged persons exhibiting signs of mental health crisis.
Psychological experts believe mentally ill persons lack the higher order planning to execute the complex steps necessary for anything more than petty crime – more often associated with co-morbid substance abuse.  This is where the problem lies. “The myth is you have to be “crazy” to do something like this (active shooter). So retrospectively, you look at people and you say, wow, this obviously – that guy should have been branded – but alcohol accounts for a great deal more violence than mental illness does.” according to Joel Dvoskin in an APA interview dispelling myths about the mentally ill.
Remember it is a fact that those with mental illness are rarely violent and those who commit violence are rarely mentally ill.
Until recently,  here in Massachusetts many smaller police agencies are forced to pay overtime for police officers to sit in hospitals or outside of jail cells watching a mentally ill person who has been arrested. This policy grew from the fear of litigation if someone dies in police custody who is known to be a mentally ill person.  Specifically, if a police officer arrests a person with a known history of suicidal ideation it has been policy among many agencies to provide an officer to monitor the prisoner to assure for a safe transfer to court. If this occurs on a week end night that often means that someone must have eyes on the person in custody until the next available court date.
But is this truth or is this part of the myth associated with those taken into custody for crimes committed while suffering from a substantive mental illness? Or is the problem really associated with substance abuse?
“Pre-arrest diversion also has been shown to be successful when law enforcement and mental health professionals respond together to behavioral health emergencies. Individuals are more often referred to the services and treatment that they need, rather than enter the criminal justice system as an offender. This co-responder model has delivered great results in Massachusetts to date. Programs run by Advocates, a human services agency, in partnership with several police departments in Middlesex County and funded in part by the Department of Mental Health have generated over 4,000 diversions and $11 million in savings since 2003.” Diane Gould Worcester Telegram February 2018

Dvoskin, J. (2018) Speaking of Psychology: Dispelling the myth of violence and mental illness Episode 27 American Psychological Association

It’s all about the base – and coming full circle

WESTBOROUGH, MA April 7, 2018 The myths of mental illness come up over and over when criminal justice reform is discussed. Here in Massachusetts a significant update of the Criminal Justice laws has just been passed and await Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s signature.
In truth most criminals are not mentally ill. The question is how do so many people who are mentally ill wind up in prison populations?  Jail diversion projects are being introduced from coast to coast and will directly impact the number of people with mental illness who are in the state prison and county jail systems.  It has worked elsewhere including San Antonio, TX.   We are led to believe that as much as
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Aerial photograph of once resplendent state hospital campus in Massachusetts – now crumbling and unsafe to enter. (Google image)
40 percent of the inmate prison population has some form of mental illness although I do not dispute this. The stigma associated with being “mentally ill” calls for added resources for treating them.  Just as resources are provided for those with diabetes, atrial fibrillation and COPD.  These patients are not stigmatized for the maladaptive choices they make that may confound the medical complexity they experience and its cost to society.  Some of the worst cases of COPD I have worked with continue to use tobacco products.  Similarly, those with uncontrolled diabetes may require diseased-related  surgical amputation of toes, foot, legs, yet remain non-compliant with checking their blood glucose. Why?  They are not stigmatized – unless they are obese.
Each time we see something horrific we automatically assume the person to whom the acts are attributed “must be sick”.  These notions have been discussed over and over in these pages. In truth, mental illness has less to do with aggression toward people than crimes such as petty theft and other nuisance offenses like disorderly conduct and panhandling. My sense is that whenever an arrest is made the differential diagnosis is all about the base – and underlying addiction and substance abuse must be considered and treated.
In the 1970’s the Massachusetts state hospital system had been deconstructed and was taken out of the continuum of care. The chronically ill fell off the treatment radar and went rogue.  Importantly in Massachusetts, this triggered the swing away from hospital-based care to the community health centers that became the front line for those in crisis.  At this point the myth of mental illness began its insidious transformation and jail became the containment center in the absence of the venerable state hospitals.  These insights are not new.  The problem is that there are not enough treatment options including inpatient mental health care to make a viable change in the current trends.
“The short version is that while people with serious mental illness are slightly more likely to commit acts of violence than people without mental illness, the risk that it creates is pretty small compared to other known risk factors.”  According to Joel Dvoskin “alcohol accounts for a great deal more violence than mental illness does.” APA, 2018
“So, when somebody feels depressed, enraged, insignificant, they have access to a firearm, maybe they’re drinking too much that night, maybe they just got fired and so on – it’s like this perfect storm of despair. ” according to Dr. Dvoskin.  There are several states who are taking a close look at the removal of guns from people known to be violent or threatening – even prior to formal adjudication.  Until now, there was little that could be done to remove weapons from a dangerous person until he committed a crime.
Here in Massachusetts the substance abuse problem and the mental illness problem are commonly lumped together.  They are not mutually exclusive and I have posted previously that mental problems are often inflamed by substance use. We have come full circle in understanding the need for intensive resources that may have been lost by closing the hospitals and letting them crumble.

Dvoskin, J. (2018) Speaking of Psychology: Dispelling the myth of violence and mental illness Episode 27 American Psychological Association

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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Profiling a package bomber

OKC bombing
 

Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City

 

WESTBOROUGH, MA March 22, 2018 The recent spate of explosive attacks on apparently random victims continues as of this blog post.  People around the world are speculating about the psychological underpinning of a person or persons who can create a bomb and deliver it to some intended victim without being caught.  The explosion at the FedEx depot is something new as compared to the first 4 blasts.  So far 2 victims have been killed by the bombs.  The initial victims were African-American and Latino raising the specter of the bombs being a hate crime.

What does the bomb say about the bomb maker? Bomb construction thought to be a characteristic of underlying ideology and may be linked to motivation.  Certainly explosive devices range in their level of technology and sophistication.  In 1995 Timothy McVeigh created a powerful bomb made out of a deadly cocktail of agricultural fertilizer, diesel fuel, and other chemicals that killed 168 people at the Murrah Federal Building in OKC including many children at a nearby pre-school.

The type of bomb in Austin, TX has not been described by police or federal agents but the frequency of the attacks is unprecedented.  It may suggest that more than one individual is working to produce the explosives and make deliveries or the devices were constructed to stockpile before deliveries were made. The bomber likely lives alone or has a shop where the devices and their components are stored for assembly. His keen interest is in making people afraid and keeping a city in lock down. McVeigh was a former munitions soldier in the Army and may have learned his technique in the process of training with the U.S. Army.

If the Austin devices are the work of a single serial bomber than the frequency and recent change in method of detonation raise the bar in terms of sophistication of delivery but the risk of being caught or making a mistake may also be accentuated.  The police chief in Austin reportedly said that by using FedEx for shipping the explosive the likelihood of capture in short order was increased. An image was obtained of a man at FedEx that eventually became a person of interest.

The person who is behind this seige is likely an angry and detached with few friends.  Being marginalized lends both to his stealth and fuels his anger and resentment.  He may be suicidal and ultimately he final blast is to be part of his exit plan. He quite likely enjoys the sadistic control and media attention he is getting.

The fact that there are so few deaths – versus a massive splash event is not quite clear.  It speaks to ambiguous planning and perhaps unclear motive and may signal the growing disorganization associated with his terminal event. Additional personality features are uncovered with each action.  These are kept from the public domain.  My analyses are conjectural.

Michael Sefton, Ph.D.

Protection from abuse: the role of social media in the reduction of safety

WESTBOROUGH, MA March 20, 2018  Greater protection of victims of domestic violence is needed.  When provisions for a plan of safety are executed victims are expected be afforded greater safety but not always. Domestic violence victims are at greatest risk when they make the decision to leave a violent partnership.  This often means having a safety plan – especially when specific threats have been made. Safety plans are often drawn up by women in conjunction with counselors who specialize in helping families stay off the grid and hidden from violent spouses.  In one case of familial homicide and suicide it was clear that the commonalities needed to be exposed among cases of familial homicide.
In particular, when I teach law enforcement officers about DVH,  I encourage detailed witness statements much as possible especially if the victim described the fear and belief that she will one day be murdered by her partner. These documented statements, if spontaneously uttered, are often the greatest predictor of potential harm to victims and her children. If written into a police report the decision about dangerousness and bail may be influenced.
In the 2011 homicide from Maine, Steven Lake used social media to track his wife and 2 children from whom he was mandated to stay away.  Yet, if his wife posted a photograph of his children he went to great lengths to undermine their safety by identifying anyone who “liked” the photo or commented on it. He used these posts to triangulate her whereabouts and living arrangements.  This was a large part of what marginalized Stephen Lake and in turn Lake posted his own propaganda espousing his loneliness and love for his children. Lake garnered significant support from those social media “friends” who knew nothing about what he had done to require the protection from abuse order. Many, in fact, encouraged him to fight for his children which may have been a catalyst in his festering resentment and ultimately terminal rage. He was provided information and access to his wife’s social media platforms by a family member.  For her part, Lake’s wife wanted to remain close to her in-laws in an effort to normalize her children’s life as much as possible. For example  Lake’s parents were invited to the family’s thanksgiving celebration but declined because Steven Lake could not attend.
Similarities in domestic violence
Cases of domestic violence have similarities across socioeconomic status, ethnic and cultural background, and the cycle of abuse. The growth of social media platforms affords those inclined to control and isolate intimate partners from persons who might provide them security. Cases of domestic violence share the common theme of intimidation, coercion and control.  Social media are a fun and useful medium to keep in touch with friends and family.  But it is also lends itself to sometimes nefarious trolling to gain a perceived advantage in undermining the safety plan. Social media trolling contributes to the control they seek especially when victims seek protection.  In order to limit the impact of social  media stalking victims need to shut down all social media accounts and activity. Greater protection of victims and family members requires a comprehensive plan with provisions for times when they are violated – including mandatory arrest, risk assessment and no bail containment if deemed necessary.
“That is one conclusion of four former and current police officers in a recently released report. The men, who were volunteers and had no connection to the shootings, spent the last several months interviewing 69 people about the triple homicide and suicide in Dexter in June, to suggest ways to prevent future tragedies.” Portland Press Herald, November 11, 2011
The Psychological Autopsy report suggests improvements that may prevent future domestic violence homicides:
 Use of social media platforms by people involved in conflicts should be minimized, to prevent intimidation and stalking.
 Protection-from-abuse orders and bail conditions should mandate disclosure of all firearms that are accessible to the domestic-violence offender.
 An offender who seeks, hides, uses or attempts to acquire a gun or ammunition when a protection-from-abuse order is in place should be charged with a felony and not allowed bail.
 Bail amounts should be high enough to deter abusers from violating a protection orders.
 When a protection order violation involves a deadly threat, a judge should set bail, not a bail commissioner.
 Global positioning systems should track abusers during periods of protection orders in any incidents that involve deadly threats or evidence of weapons.
 At least two officers should be sent to all domestic-violence calls when officers suspect violence is likely.
 At-risk spouses should be advised to live in as secure an environment as possible, with deadbolts on doors, secured windows, motion sensor lights and a land telephone line.
 People charged with domestic violence crimes should not wait more than a year to go to trial.
The safety of potential victims including children is the penultimate goal of protection orders but too often they are ignored via stalking efforts that include using social media to track the activities of an estranged spouse.  This overt defiance requires careful analysis and requires the arrest of the violator.  Once this takes place a dangerousness hearing must take place before he or she is released but this rarely takes place.