When it comes to threat assessment and targeted violence prevention, a perpetrator often experiences some type of peak life stressor such as debt, divorce, illness or loss of employment. The coronavirus and recent civil unrest have certainly exacerbated these stressful situations and experiences.

For an individual in this situation, they may look to the most visible person they can find to target for their grievances. Today, those people are public officials on the television, radio and online, who are sharing information about the coronavirus. The political polarization of COVID-19 response only serves to increase exposure for these figures who are making public appearances to disseminate critical intel.

Fortunately, the violence prevention tenets we practice and preach on a daily basis also apply to these extremely visible figures who are facing threats perhaps for the first time.

The Mounting Attacks Directed at Public Officials – Especially Women

The Wall Street Journal recently cited how public health officials have received threats of violence. Individuals are also disproportionately targeting women. In 2018, when a record-breaking number of women entered U.S. Congressional races, many candidates began receiving threats, especially candidates of color. A man from Detroit is under investigation for making “credible threats” to kill Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as well as her female Attorney General Dana Nessel. Whitmer has been in the national spotlight for her response to COVID-19.

“An increasing number of public-health officials, across the country—myself included— are threatened with violence on a regular basis,” said Barbara Ferrer, director of Los Angeles County’s public-health department. “In my case, the death threats started last month, during a Covid-19 Facebook Live public briefing when someone very casually suggested that I should be shot.”

Ohio’s top public health official, Amy Acton, resigned this month after armed protesters showed up at her house to protest her role in the state’s efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Facebook groups devoted to her firing gathered more than 4,000 members.

This is why it is so important that public health officials at the federal, state and local levels be integrated into the threat assessment protocols that other agencies or Hillard Heintze have developed with those devoted to public safety.

How to Protect Officials and Others from Threats

We know that potential targets of violent attacks, including public health officials, may spend considerable resources on personal protection measures such as 24-hour physical protection for themselves, their home and their office. They may also seek out training for themselves and staff to know how to prepare for and respond to a potential threat.

Though these are good practice measures, the most important public resource they need to leverage is threat assessment or protective intelligence: the process of gathering and assessing information about individuals who may have the interest, motive, intention and capability of mounting attacks.

The primary goal of every protective intelligence investigation is to prevent an attack on a potential target. First, an open-source intelligence (OSINT) analyst can gather the information and evidence necessary to assess an individual’s possible threat. With this assessment in hand, threat and violence risk management experts can develop a plan – in close collaboration with the public official themselves and their office – for monitoring and possibly intervening on behalf of a subject.

In our practice, we will look to an individual’s motives and attack-related behaviors and to their available support systems (e.g., family, work, community, criminal justice, mental health and social services) to assess and manage these threats.

Our experience has shown that a robust open-source intelligence program can serve as a key component of a comprehensive workplace violence prevention program to prevent targeted violence. Our firm has built the organizational capacity in many public and private sectors to conduct behavioral threat intelligence investigations with an emphasis on oversight by experienced law enforcement and security agency managers.

If a federal state or local public health official is noting concerning behaviors or undue attention due to their public spotlight, consider contacting your respective cabinet secretary, governor or mayor or their representative. Many of these positions employ some type of protocol for threats on publicly elected or appointed officials.

In the event you cannot identify resources, Hillard Heintze’s Threat + Violence Risk Management practice can also assist in conducting a thorough investigation to determine if a subject has the interest, motive and ability to attempt an attack on a public official or figure. We can step in and manage the case to help ensure that violence does not occur.

Learn why threat assessment and management is so important during the COVID-19 crisis.
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