Earlier this month, we noted an alarming pattern: public officials receiving more threats due to their high-profile image during the pandemic. Now, a tragic shooting in New Jersey suggests this paradigm extends to other forms of civil service as well.
Several weeks ago, attorney Roy Den Hollander killed Judge Esther Salas’ 20-year-old son and severely injured her husband in a premeditated attack. Since the murder and Hollander’s subsequent suicide, authorities have determined that he is the primary suspect in another shooting of a rival men’s rights lawyer in California. As an Executive Advisory Board member for the U.S. Marshal Service Judicial Security Center (NCJS) this case was particularly jarring for me.
As has been typical following brutal crimes like these, reporters sought any information about Hollander that would indicate his willingness to kill Judge Salas and her family – and it did not take long to find that paper trail. Though we don’t know all the facts in this case, Hollander’s actions appear to reflect a discernable pattern in targeted violence – a pattern that threat management experts can detect and mitigate against.
How Roy Den Hollander’s Misogynist Past Made Headlines – But Raised Few Alarm Bells
These murders were not Hollander’s first foray into the public eye, and his well-documented misogyny seems to show a man growing increasingly angry with the world around him and his perceived oppressors: women. But perhaps what is most startling is that, despite his views’ visibility over the past decade, few people saw him as an actual threat to safety.
In 2007, Hollander garnered national attention when he filed a suit claiming that commonplace “ladies’ nights” at bars, during which women paid less cover, were discriminatory toward men. In the New Yorker, a female reporter tagging Hollander at a ladies’ night detailed his misogyny and racism on full display, instead of denouncing these comments directly or raising the question of how Hollander’s views could translate into possible physical violence against women, the reporter focused on the surface-level absurdity. Hollander received a similar response when he went on The Colbert Show in 2011 after the U.S. Supreme Court denied his ladies’ night suit: he was the object of ridicule, but not a potential threat.
Prominent feminist writer Andi Zeisler expanded on this phenomenon with the Washington Post after the attack on Judge Salas family: “Hollander hid in plain sight because his views were exaggerated versions of normalized stereotypes and suspicions about women. But when men who have spent their lives denigrating women commit acts of violence against women, their motives are no mystery.”
Why Violence Against Women Is a Critical Indicator of Potential Attacks
Hollander appears to have targeted Judge Salas after she oversaw his latest suit regarding women registering for the military draft. According to court records, Salas offered rebuttals to some of Hollander’s legal arguments, but she allowed the lawsuit to continue through the court system. Yet to Hollander, who was also allegedly suffering from a terminal illness at the time of his suicide, even Judge Salas’ passing disagreements made her an enemy – or what he frequently describes on his website as a “Lady Judge.”
Hollander had actually publicly described how he would rectify such a perceived wrong. On his website, Hollander featured a manifesto titled, “The Evolutionarily Correct Encyclopedia.” Under “Solutions,” he wrote, “Things begin to change when individual men start taking out those specific persons responsible for destroying their lives before committing suicide.”
Moreover, according to studies from the U.S. Secret Service and other organizations, many men who commit a form of femicide have a record of violence against women, including domestic violence. Under Hollander’s “Jokes” tab on his personal website, he includes a section about domestic violence. He posits a theoretical question: “Did you ever hit your wife?” He responds, “No, but I should have.” His ex-wife’s lawyer has since described Hollander’s behavior during divorce proceedings as “delusional and disturbing.”
The Growing Need for Threat Management Programs for Judges
On August 3, Judge Salas shared a video in which she emotionally described her son’s final moments and the increasing fear associated with being a judge: “We are forced to live in fear for our lives because personal information … can be easily obtained by anyone seeking to do us or our families harm.”
It’s important to note here that assassinations of federal judges in the United States remain rare. Secondary parties, other law enforcement agencies on the state or local level, security professionals, family members, neighbors and mental health practitioners are just some of the people who can and do alert agencies responsible for public safety – like the U.S. Marshals – of a possible threat.
But Judge Salas’ case demonstrates how this network is not perfect and needs constant monitoring and refinement – and in actuality, the number of threats against judges are growing. In 2017, Judge James Robart of Seattle temporarily blocked President Donald Trump’s first “travel ban” – a move the president quickly derided on Twitter. According to Robart, he received 42,000 calls, letters and emails after this denouncement. The U.S. Marshals, who have protected U.S. federal judges since the 18th century, determined that “1,100 were ‘serious threats,’ including more than 100 death threats.” According to the U.S. Marshals, Robart’s situation is one of several in an uptick in threats since 2015.
What Threat Management Professionals Can Learn From This Tragedy
We know that the U.S. Marshals were not tracking Hollander – but that doesn’t mean that there was no apparatus in place to catch people like him. In fact, the U.S. Marshals have one of the most efficient and robust protective intelligence capabilities in the U.S. government. In addition, many judges, especially those who are self-quarantining during the pandemic, rely on home alarm systems to protect themselves.
But even with Hollander on the agency’s radar, they may not have been able to intervene. Targeted violence is rarely preceded by a direct threat of bodily harm, and as often is the case, law enforcement agencies cannot take legal judicial action against someone on the pathway to violence unless they meet strict criteria under the law.
This doesn’t mean that we cannot improve processes, particularly those that dictate who public safety agencies identify as people of concern. According to the New York Times, Hollander “had a list of more than a dozen other possible targets, including three other judges and two doctors.” As threat assessment professionals, we hear that and wonder: Did these other individuals experience something or observe behaviors from Hollander that should have been reported? If so, why didn’t they report them? The lessons learned here can be applied to future cases.
As for predicting this tragedy, that’s more complicated. The notion of attacking a judge does not leap fully formed into the mind of a person standing in close proximity to a judge. In the collective experience of law enforcement agencies charged with the protection of public officials such as the U.S. Marshal Service and the U.S. Secret Service, ideas of these attacks develop over weeks, months and even years, and are stimulated by social media, television and newspaper images, movies and books. Hollander’s decade in the public eye, described above, reflects this.
For some would-be attackers, just thinking about how they will target someone – which weapons they are going to use, how they are going to arrive at the destination and so on – dominates their lives, providing a sense of meaning or a goal that will end their emotional pain.
That’s why it is so important to train judges, their families and local law enforcement to identify pre-attack behaviors aimed at identifying and preventing individuals with the means and interest to attack a protected person. John Muffler, a former U.S. Marshal who led the agency’s National Center for Judicial Security, shared that most judges are very diligent about their own security, but that doesn’t mean it’s foolproof and they may occasionally let their guards down.
Others have commented on how Hollander’s online vitriol should have been more diligently tracked through an open-source intelligence function, like that which Hillard Heintze provides to government agencies and clients – and that openly misogynistic comments should be acknowledged as a possible precursor to violence.
We can never know for sure how a behavioral threat assessment and investigation would have better protected the Salas family. But we do know, based on existing evidence, that an emphasis on early detection and threat assessment can identify individuals on a pathway to violence prior to any violence.
With threat management best practices at the ready, we can better protect our civil servants, including the women who don the robes. As Judge Salas put it in her video, “This is a matter of life and death … And we can’t just sit back and wait for another tragedy to strike.”