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
Advertisements

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

Maine to Consider “Red Flag Law”

WESTBOROUGH, MA April 25, 2018  Maine is the latest state to consider a so-called red flag law. It would let family members or law enforcement officers petition a judge to take away a “high risk” person’s firearms temporarily, if the judge determines the person poses an imminent risk. In a recent post I describe the updated terminology for individuals who are a potential threat called Gun Violence Restraining Orders.  The proposed action would allow law enforcement to remove the firearms of people who are known to be threatening or physically violent toward intimate partners.  “Felons, the dangerously mentally ill, perpetrators of domestic violence – these people have demonstrated their unfitness to own a firearm” said David French, 2018.  In cases such as these police have reasonable cause to disallow gun ownership based not on prior conviction but on the elevated risk to potential victims.
Here in Massachusetts, in August 2013 I published a blog after the death of Jennifer Martell who was murdered in front of her 4-year old daughter by Jared Remy, son of Red Sox broadcaster and former player Jerry Remy.  The younger Remy had received one break after another some say linked to his celebrity father’s influence.  He was never held until a dangerousness hearing could be undertaken.  Had this been done Ms. Martell may be alive today. In 2011, Stephen Lake murdered his wife and children after he was kept from attending his son’s 8th grade graduation.  Lake had exhibited several red flag warnings prior to the murders.  In spite of these he was not held nor were his firearms removed form his control Allanach, et al. 2011.
Several states have debated similar red flag laws in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Supporters argue a red flag law could have prevented the Parkland shooter, but some gun owners say it’s an overreach that threatens their 2nd Amendment rights.
Like many states in the U.S. Maine has more than its share of calls for domestic violence and domestic violence homicide.  “All law enforcement personnel who respond to incidents in which an individual’s mental illness appears to be a factor receive training to prepare for these encounters; those in specialized assignments receive more comprehensive training. Dispatchers, call takers, and other individuals in a support role receive training tailored to their needs.” Communication between members of a response team with awareness and understanding of red flag warnings will reduce the impact of coercion and control that belies the secretive relationships between intimate partners.  It will also bring to light the need for danger assessment and containment of people who are high risk for violence as in the case of Jared Remy in Massachusetts and Stephen Lake in Dexter, Maine.

Red Flag Warnings (2018) https://www.necn.com/news/new-england/Maine-to-Consider-Red-Flag-Law-478687253.html Taken 4-4-18
Allanach, R.A., Gagan, B.F., Loughlin, J., Sefton, M.S., (2011) The Psychological Autopsy of the Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicide and Suicide. Presented to the Domestic Violence Review Board, November 11, 2011

World Autism Awareness Day

WESTBOROUGH,MA April 2, 2018 Today is Autism Awareness Day across America and the World.  Persons living with autism require sensitivity and patience. Here in Massachusetts we are fortunate to have one of the world’s leaders in autistic education at the New England Center for Children in Southborough, MA.  These professionals provide front line behavior planning, education, BCBA training, aquatics, and residential living.

“Autistic peopleAutism-1 find interacting with others difficult. For example, they may struggle to read facial expressions and be taken by surprise at outbursts of anger or affection.” according to Mark Goodard on the Psychology24 blog first published in 2016. Mark posts 5 poignant suggestions in dealing with those on the Autistic Spectrum.

These include:

  1. Avoid changes in plans or routines with first warning a person with autism
  2. Take time and explain things clearly to avoid resistance and major meltdown later on.
  3. Be patient – expect rigid thinking and someone who can be stubborn and irritable when anxious.
  4. Do not rely on body language and facial expressions.  People with autism avoid eye contact and do not pick up social cues.
  5. Do not be afraid to set limits and social correction. Autistic children and adults need direction in situations that require social reciprocity.

Goodard, M. (2016) 5 TIPS ON DEALING WITH AN AUTISTIC PERSON. Psychology24. Found at http://www.psychology24.org/5-tips-dealing-autistic-person/. Taken April 2, 2018.

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.

Resilence and management of high stress situations

WESTBOROUGH, MA January 15, 2018  The likelihood of becoming involved in an on-the-job shooting in one’s career is generally quite low across law enforcement officers in the US and Canada. However, there is a high degree of likelihood of almost daily encounters with high stress calls involving intimate partner violence, substance abuse, children at risk, unbearable human suffering and death.  I recall being involved in a search for a middle age male who did not return home after a night of drinking.  His route typically brought him across an abandoned rail road bridge.  As you might guess he did not make it across the bridge on that cold night instead falling off and drowning. He was found partially submerged and caught on some tree branches visible only by his L.L. Bean jacket which he had bought for those cold walks back from the neighborhood watering hole.  He was known to most of the police officers – two of whom were charged with going out into the river and retrieving his remains.  The body had been in the water about 48 hours.  It was not something I had seen before. I stood by for the retrieval and was involved in the notification.  My first of many.

These kinds of calls stay with you.  Especially early in one’s career.  The response of the family to losing their 50-year old father was especially difficult as he had young children from his second wife.  But I know officers and EMS first responders who have had one

images 2
Boston Police Officers react to Marathon bombing  ABC TV – photo credit

experience after another just like this and worse. A colleague described rolling up a driveway to an open garage and bearing witness to the home owner hanging from a ceiling joist. Suicide. Imagine the psychic imprinting officers experienced responding to recent mass shootings in Las Vegas or to a small church in rural Texas where so many people are killed or maimed and to be unable to stop the bad guy before it all happened.

Here in Boston, 3 people were killed over 300 people were badly injured after two homemade bombs were set off during the Boston Marathon setting the stage for a complete shutdown of the city while area police officers searched for the suspects.  MIT University Police Officer Sean Collier was killed by the bombers while seated in his patrol vehicle on duty 3 days after the bombing.  Within hours a firefight ensued in Watertown, MA as the bombers were found in a hijacked SUV.  The brave officers from Watertown, MA, Boston Police, MBTA Transit Police, and Harvard University PD fought it out for 8 minutes with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother Tamerlan who was killed in the gun battle and run over by his brother. MBTA officer Richard Donohue was shot during the gunfight nearly losing his life. After a year of rehabilitation he returned to duty and was promoted to sergeant but ultimately could not recover from his wounds and retired in the line of duty. It took extra days and over 1000 police officers to locate the second bomber cowering in the covered boat of a Watertown resident.

To survive these incidents one needs to have resilience also known as the psychological resources to process the experience with all of its ugliness and to know that you did what was needed with the training and experience you bring to the job every day.  “By using alcohol to cope instead of resilient thinking one often develops other problems and this can lead ultimately to suicide. Alcohol is often related to suicidal behavior.” according to Leo Polizotti, Ph.D at the Direct Decision Institute in Massachusetts.  After a stressful event, your body and mind must return to its baseline calm and ready state so that the officer may again activate and serve in whatever capacity is required without the baggage of the calls gone by.  As this “baggage” builds unfettered the likelihood of a decline in officer job performance grows sometimes exponentially.  There should be opportunity and on-going training to process the images in order to put them away and restore emotional equilibrium.  In some department realistic training includes use of simuntions where officers actually shoot their weapons at active shooters during training exercises.  The weapons are full sized handguns fitted with special projectiles that do not cause lethal injuries.  All training is conducted with head and face protection.  Many departments are building resilience training into their recruit academies – no only building physical strength but emotional wellness too.  “Current training teaches officers about biological awareness (bio-awareness) since psychological and physical reactions in the body arise from biological responses to the environment. Mental and physical states don’t happen independently and both must be addressed in reality-based training” Anderson, et. al., 2017.

“When a person encounters a threatening situation, they experience a surge of natural chemicals, such as adrenaline and cortisol. These chemicals allow the body to respond quickly. When this biological threat response is moderate, it enhances performance through more accurate vision, hearing, motor control, and response time. However, when the threat response is severe, the response can negatively affect performance by creating distortions in thinking, vision and hearing, and by increasing motor control problems, which can result in slower reaction times.” Anderson, et. al., 2017

Police in Massachusetts and throughout America are faced with the worst of all human experience.  Arguably, everything from unattended death, domestic violence, child abuse, and a fatal motor vehicle crash may show up on the call board of any dispatcher on any day or night as I posted in May, 2015. In the case of traumatic events – officer safety demands CISD and in the long run physical health and well-being are the underpinnings of a 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 (Sefton, 2015). “Psychological benefits include reducing distress, enhancing confidence in abilities and recognizing psychological responses that need the attention of a mental health professional” Anderson, et. al., 2017.  When necessary police officers undergo critical incident debriefing and peer support. Some benefit has been demonstrated using biofeedback to reduce the trending autonomic arousal through a paced breathing protocol to ameliorate the sympathetic-parasympathetic mismatch (Sefton, 2017).

“The primary goal of all modalities of biofeedback including physiologic modalities and neurofeedback is to restore the body to its “normal” state of homeostasis.  The process promotes mindfulness and paced breathing to gradually lower respiratory drive, reduce heart rate and blood pressure, and enhance other abnormal physiological readings such as skin conductance, abnormal finger temperature, and elevated electromyography.  It takes practice and understanding of its value.” Sefton Blog post 2017

Ultimately law enforcement and all first responders must be afforded support along with training to adapt to situations most human beings would never choose to confront and do so in a manner that instills personal dignity,  intgrity, and continued professionalism.


Polizotti, L. (2017) Psychological Resilience: From Surviving to Thriving in a Law
Enforcement Career. Direct Decision Institute presentation.
Judith Andersen, Ph.D., Harri Gustafsberg, M.A., Peter Collins, M.D., Senior Cst. Steve Poplawski, Bsc., Emma King, M.A., Performing under stress: Evidence-based training for police resilience. RCMP Gazette Magazine Vol. 79, No. 1.
Sefton, M. (2015) Critical Incident Debriefing: The cumulative effects of stress. Blog post: https://msefton.wordpress.com/topics/dv-and-trauma/police-service/critical-incident-debriefing-the-cumulative-effects-of-stress/ Taken 12-30-17.
Sefton, M (2017) Biofeedback: Teaching the body to return to a proper homeostasis. Blog post: concussionmanagement.wordpress.com https://wordpress.com/post/concussionassessment.wordpress.com/3682, taken 12-30-2017

 

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.