According to media outlets reporting on a deadly shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, newsrooms around the country are on high alert. USA Today reports at least a half-dozen major newspapers are putting more security in place around news organizations.
This frenzied alarm is apparent in New York City where police are stationed to guard against potential copycat or coordinated attacks. New York Police Department spokesman Peter Donald noted that the action was purely precautionary and not based on a specific threat. “They will be there until we feel like there is no longer a need,” Donald said.
A former executive editor for The Capital, Tom Marquardt, exemplified the shock — and fear — of reporters and media personnel when he posted on Facebook regarding his inability to understand the tragedy, “I can’t even fathom with any degree of understanding what happened at my old newspaper today,” Marquardt said. “The Capital, like all newspapers, angered people every day in its pursuit of the news. In my day, people protested by writing letters to the editor; today it’s through the barrel of a gun.”
I applaud any organization that enhances their physical security to provide their co-workers a safe and secure workplace, but it is naïve to think that merely enhancing physical security will prevent targeted violence.
Would these security measures have prevented the Gazette shooter from killing employees, merely because his access to their office building could have been prevented? Not likely. You have to consider the parking lot, the community where the newsroom employees reside, and more broadly, where to draw the line in a country that values freedom of the press.
Ultimately, keeping this from happening again requires more than an ad hoc police presence, but a preventative methodology that focuses on warning signs.
A History of Stalking and Harassment
Targeted violence against media personnel can happen anywhere. Let’s not forget about the Roanoke TV station shooting where a reporter and cameraman were gunned down while filming a story outside of the office. The station fired the killer for disruptive conduct that was not identified as an early warning sign of potential workplace violence behavior. After a manhunt that lasted for almost five hours, he shot himself during a car chase with police officers and died later at a hospital.
We already know the Annapolis shooter had warning signs of workplace violence. A woman stalked by the Annapolis gunman had allegedly warned police for five years that he will likely be “the next mass shooter” and had a vendetta against the publication because they exposed his perverted harassment campaign in a 2011 article, resulting in him suing the newspaper. After the unsuccessful lawsuit and years of posting threats against the newspaper and its staff on social media, the 38-year-old opened fire in their newsroom.
The gunman’s initial stalking of the woman – his former classmate – had begun with a Facebook message of thanks for being “the only person ever to say hello or be nice to him in school” and escalated into a harassment campaign, which forced her to change her name and leave the state.
The woman told an NBC News reporter that she had become so frightened of him that she had to move three times and now sleeps with a gun, adding that, “I was afraid he could show up at any point, any place … and kill me.”
Moving Forward with Prevention
Threat assessment is the process of gathering and assessing information about persons who may have the interest, motive, intention and capability of mounting attacks against individuals. We know an individual planning to carry out an attack must select a target, locate the target, secure a weapon and travel to the target’s location.
Given The Capital gunman’s continued history of harassment and violence, we would have conducted a behavioral threat assessment, a highly technical, specialized and methodology-driven pre-attack pathway analysis to identify behaviors and characteristics likely to foreshadow an act of targeted violence and recommend countermeasures. Our threat assessment includes monitoring and surveillance, target interviews, liaison with family members, friends and other related parties as well law enforcement and mental health experts.
Every newsroom in the country should have a threat management capability. Every day our firm identifies existing social systems that help us manage individuals who are potential threat. We work with social systems such as criminal justice mental health professionals, special services, community organizations, family and friends to manage subjects who have an unusual or inappropriate interest in our media outlets such as newspapers and television.
For 30 years, I have worked closely with mental health professionals, families and law enforcement in preventing acts of targeted violence. In almost every case involving a mentally ill person whose inappropriate behavior may indicate a pathway to violence, an attack was a means to achieve an end, such as calling attention to a perceived problem.
On a monthly basis, I also interact with family members when a person may be a threat to one of our clients. Without exception, family members welcome our advice and insight as we provide information to law enforcement that may in some cases result in a court-ordered mental health commitment. We partner with family members to monitor a person who is under a court-ordered mental health commitment. Without a doubt, we have been successful in preventing persons who were likely planning an attack from obtaining or possessing weapons.
This type of assessment and focus on social systems may have not only validated the harassed woman’s experiences in the eyes of law enforcement and security professionals, but also served as a foundation for keeping the gunman from harming himself and others. When law enforcement is standing outside a newsroom’s door, they are certainly serving their community and protecting those inside, but they are not actively working to identify the next potential shooter or their target.
We hope that threat assessments will do just that.