threat assessment

Early last month, 26-year-old Esteban Santiago killed five people at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Active shooter events always beg the question, “Why did this happen? How could this have been prevented?” This instance is no different.

FBI Intervention

Many media outlets have reported that Santiago had shown concerning behaviors prior to the attack. According to NBC News, Santiago walked into an FBI office in Anchorage, Alaska saying he had been hearing voices claiming that the CIA was forcing him to watch ISIS propaganda videos. He also believed ISIS was controlling his mind. Federal law enforcement officials said that Santiago voluntarily attended a mental health facility for psychological treatment after the FBI notified local law enforcement officials. The FBI conducted interviews and checks before subsequently closing its case.

Predicting and Preventing Are Vastly Different

Predicting violence is an unproven science and certainly not a sound methodology for investigators for any threat case, but capturing lessons learned from acts of targeted violence can help future investigators. While I would never second-guess actions by law enforcement during a violent incident, I do think that perhaps monitoring from a threat management perspective might have been helpful in this case.

Based on my experience as the Senior Vice President of Threat and Violence Risk Management for Hillard Heintze and as the retired Special Agent in Charge of the Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center, I have always adhered to the preventative concept that effective threat management does not always mean that a case should be closed or not based on the lack of current information that could lead to an arrest or conviction. The Secret Service has always been cognizant that threat investigations differ from many other kinds of investigations in that the ultimate goal of these investigations is to prevent an attack, not to secure an arrest or conviction or to verify facts.

Concerning Behaviors

Concerning behaviors are at the core of a sound threat assessment methodology. Effective case management is aided by a systems perspective. That is, threat investigators should identify existing social systems that might help them manage a person whose behavior is concerning. If the subject of concern is known, the investigator should connect with these organizations or individuals not only to discuss the subject’s current behavior, but also to let these contacts know to alert the investigator if the subject’s behavior escalates. I often advise clients to talk to family members and close friends of the person exhibiting concerning behaviors. Much like in the case of Santiago whose aunt told that he had “lost his mind” following his discharge from National Guard service in Iraq. Family members can add insight to behavior and help narrow down which behaviors are concerning versus simply personality quirks.

My experience with these types of contacts has been positive overall. In many cases, family members work cooperatively with the investigator to engage, neutralize and redirect the potential attacker. Throughout my experience, I’ve talked with the following:

  • Family
  • Friends
  • Criminal justice system – prosecutors, courts, probation officers and correctional officials
  • Health and mental health care organizations – managed care organizations, public mental health agencies and local hospitals

Interviewing others who are in regular contact with the subject of concern to ensure he or she behaves and to be notified if there is any change in behavior is key to a successful monitoring. To evaluate changes in behavior, a threat assessor should leave their contact information with the members of the social system such as relatives and other trusted sources. As each law enforcement agency has its own processes and protocols, it’s important to know that investigating, evaluating and managing people who are concerning will not necessarily result in a “case closed” or “case stays open” scenario. However, it is important to have a social system relationship that can help the investigator make a potentially life-saving phone call.

An active shooter attack is over in five minutes or less. Would your team be prepared?
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