Learning the fundamentals of behavioral threat assessment can help reduce violence in myriad ways.
Taking a behavioral approach toward violence prevention helps all of us.
Safety is a fundamental human need. Despite this, one of the significant threats to human safety in the modern world is the violence in which some humans engage.
The causes of violence are complex. They can include biological, psychological, environmental, family, or social factors, and generally involve the interplay of each.
Fortunately, you do not have to untangle the complicated path that leads an individual to commit violence to contribute to the safety of your community.
Instead, knowing the fundamentals of behavioral threat assessment can assist.
In July 2019, a 19-year-old Texas man called his grandmother from
a hotel room. He claimed to have bought an AK-47 style rifle and was
going to “shoot up” his hotel and then commit suicide-by-cop. His grandmother
convinced the man to allow her to pick him up and take him to a hospital,
averting what would have been one of far too many mass shootings in the U.S.i
Those who engage in violence often broadcast intent in some manner. Family members, teachers, peers, and community leaders are frequently privy to the verbal and non-verbal “red flags” that would-be violent actors signal.
Responding proactively – like the grandmother in Texas did – can save lives and make a critical impact on the safety of our society.
Too often, we fear that we might confuse the “signal with the noise” when we suspect someone might be readying for violence. We are afraid that we might be over-reacting, might needlessly create problems for someone who is already struggling, or otherwise minimize the concerning statements or behavior that may indicate a violent act is about to occur.
Have a greater understanding of the behavioral warning signs that have been shown to be associated with targeted violence can mitigate these fears.
Behavioral Warning Signs
Knowing the behaviors that may be precursors to violence can assist in knowing when it is important to respond to support the safety of your environment. Some behavioral warning signs include:
- Behaviors that involve research and planning to act violently, such as learning about prior attacks, stalking a victim, or surveilling a site. The shooter who killed 3 children and 3 adults at the Covenant School in Nashville in 2023, for example, made detailed drawings of the school and surveilled the site prior to their attack.
- Behaviors that suggest overidentification with others who have engaged in violence such as warriors, soldiers, or previous mass attackers. For example, in his manifesto, the 21-year-old who killed 23 and wounded more than two dozen others at an El Paso, Texas Wal-Mart claimed the New Zealand Christchurch shooter as a source of inspiration for his decision to kill Hispanic immigrants.
He was referencing the 29-year-old Australian native who, five months prior, shot and killed 51 Muslims while live streaming his murders. Like the El Paso shooter, the Christchurch shooter published his manifesto online detailing the need to obtain white supremacy by killing non-whites, including the Muslims that he murdered during his massacre, and by increasing birthrates among white women.
The Christchurch shooter’s manifesto references the 32-year-old Norwegian who killed 77 in a bombing/shooting rampage in 2011 to promote what his manifesto called the end of the European cultural suicide that he claimed resulted from Muslim immigration and feminism. He also cited the example of the 21-year-old who joined with and then killed nine African Americans in a South Carolina Church.
- Fixation behaviors can also be considered red flags. As the name implies, this behavior is reflected by an obsession with a cause, individual, or grievance. Frequently, fixation is expressed on social media or via email or letter writing.
- Threat warning behaviors should also be taken seriously. Clearly, not everyone who makes a threat poses a threat. But some types of attackers are much more likely than others to directly communicate threats. More specific and frequent threats should heighten concern, as should threats made by those who have or have had an intimate relationship to a potential target. Threats can also be indirect, and include posting “hints” to close contacts or other third-parties on social media (what is as leakage, Meloy & O’Toole, 2011ii).
Making Society Safer
Intervening when one or more of these behavioral indicators is present may make a critical difference between maintaining safety in your environment or bearing witness to tragedy.
Often, confronting the individual of concern with compassion, curiosity, and a willingness to lend support can divert them from violence. In some cases, additional support and services, such as linkages to mental, behavioral, physical, spiritual, vocational, or financial support may be warranted.
In cases of significant concern or of imminent threat, contacting appropriate authorities is vital. Timely intervention is essential to preventing and interrupting violence.
Safety is indeed a shared human need. As the surge in targeted violence over the past several years has demonstrated, safety must also be a shared responsibility. Knowing behavioral warning signs is one way that you can elevate your safety literacy and effectively contribute to this important and meaningful societal need.
i Yancey-Bragg, N. (2019). A Texas man planned a mass shooting. His grandmother stopped him and “saved lives,” officials say. USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/08/08/texas-mass-shooti…
ii Meloy, J.R. & O’Toole, M.E. (2011). The concept of leakage in threat assessment. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 29(4), 513-527.