Can we see the signs of potential violence before it erupts?

by | Jul 8, 2018 |

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The destruction and pain caused by school shootings is lifelong and in some cases will never go away. These are tragic for the individuals killed, their families, communities, and our nation as a whole. A harsh reality we must face is this: after we bury our dead and tend to our injured we must be ready for the next attack, because it is only days, hours or minutes away. 
Handwringing, assigning blame, and arguments about gun control will occupy our time, but does not prepare us to survive the next violent episode. These attacks are part of our experience now and we must examine how we go about preparing for the next one by learning from each event and taking those lessons and applying them to our security measures. 
One of the most important things we can do at this juncture is to ask ourselves: “Were there any signs that danger was imminent before the attack?”
I have written extensively on this subject and I teach school and business personnel how to prepare for and hopefully prevent violence by recognizing the tell-tale signs that a person may be a danger to those around them. I have broken down the threats we all face, at school and at our work places into two basic camps:  The internal threat and the external threat. 
The internal threats come to us from people in our schools and workplaces; other students and co-workers. The external threats come from people outside of our schools and work places; people who try to enter or force their way into our buildings to do us harm. 
The external threats can be addressed by securing our facilities, training our people how to maintain the security profile of our buildings by restricting entry to people who may be dangerous. The equipment we put in place helps us to keep out the danger or at least slow the dangerous person down so we have time to seek safety, lock down and call for help.
The internal threats must be addressed by several measures. We must adopt a “security mindset”, which means accepting the fact that we are all vulnerable to violence at any time. It also means we must rid ourselves of the idea and belief that “It will never happen here”, which is the most dangerous thing anyone can ever believe. 
To identify real actions we can take that can help us we have to look to the historical record of attack to see what we can learn from past incidents. We need to know what the attackers did and said in the months, weeks and days before the violence erupted.
In almost every case of active shooter or work place violence we know there were signs of potential danger that could be seen before the event, but they were either not recognized, not given their true weight or they were ignored. Any of these three possibilities can and does lead to the death of innocent people.
Changing the paradigm is a difficult process. It took many years for us, as a society, to make the changes we have to date to try and protect ourselves. The Columbine high school massacre was in 1999, a full 19 years ago. That event started a wave of change in how schools protected their students and staff. It also changed how our police agencies trained and responded to these events, but it took time for all of us collectively to realize we had to do more.
In the years since Columbine we have had other high profile attacks on schools, businesses and public places to include the Virginia Tech attack, the Sikh Temple shooting, the myriad of work places murders, the horrific and unspeakable attack on the Sandy Hook school, the Pulse night club attack, the Las Vegas concert attack and the last two high school shootings in Texas and Kentucky.
This list is a short one, I have not included all of the other terrible events we have seen and grown numb to, and I have not mentioned the lone wolf terror attacks that have taken our loved ones and friends from us; we are under siege whether we like it or not; if we are to better protect ourselves we must change how we prepare.
This article is intended to be a wake-up call, to shake us from the complacency of seeing yet another event and saying “Isn’t that terrible this has to stop”, but doing nothing more than that.
Doing more than that means we need to address this reality: there are signs of potential violence we can see and we have to be willing to take action when these signs are observed. This is the hard part- we have to change how we deal with “the potentially violent person”. This is a problem because it strikes at the root of who we are as Americans. When someone has committed a crime, we try to rehabilitate the person; we don’t just throw them away.
It’s much harder for us to act when we have a person who has not committed a crime or a seriously violent act but has given indications they may be dangerous. This person is often handled with kid gloves so to speak because they are considered “innocent” and therefore they should not be sanctioned in any way. 
What I am going to suggest is that to truly enhance our safety using the lessons from past violent incidents we have to change what we do with the information we learn. Here are my suggestions:
1- If a person has created a “Hit List or Kill List”, it must be taken very seriously and investigated properly. The person creating the list should be required to get psychological counseling. If they refuse they should be removed, expelled or otherwise separated from the potential pool of victims until they are cleared by the psychologist.
2- If a person makes comments about anger, violence, killing or shows a preoccupation with weapons they should be suspended and investigated and if it is determined that they did make the comments, they should have to undergo psychological counseling or be removed from the potential pool of victims.
3- If we identify a person at school or at work that has a negative personality trait that portends danger, they should be counseled as in item’s # 1 and 2.
4- If we learn of these types of concerns about a person we must fully and thoroughly investigate the concern to confirm it or refute it. If it is confirmed then we follow the counseling in steps 1 and 2. 
5- We must ensure that anyone that is assigned to investigate these types of situations is properly trained and understands the significance of Kill lists.
There are additional items we can identify, but these are the main concerns. At this time many schools and workplaces don’t really do any of these things. We only take serious action after someone has acted out in a violent way. If we continue on this path we will continue to go down a road of tragedy. 
Understanding the Kill List and how to properly investigate it has been a subject of previous columns and a course I teach. It is vital to understand what the kill list represents.
To put it into perspective and reveal its importance let’s look at it this way:
We all have had negative thoughts about other people, we have all been angry at other people; we have all disliked or felt betrayed or hurt by other people. Depending on the circumstances we may have kept these feeling to ourselves or we may have been driven to the point of saying something to the person directly or in a way that our feelings were made known, but it stopped there. As an example many people have said (or something similar) in a moment of anger- “if you don’t stop it I’ll kill you”. 
Those words are violent and express a threat to the person you are addressing, but we all know that for the vast majority of people, we would not actually kill anyone, not even the person that upset us to the point that we made that comment.    
No matter the fact that we didn’t take action on the threat, this is still an inappropriate statement that can have civil and criminal penalties all their own. But for our example let’s say no one gets arrested for the comment, if it is properly and thoroughly investigated we can make a reliable conclusion that there is no danger to anyone. 
This is where it usually ends. Everyone cools off and the comment is seen for what it was, a burst of angry words without real dangerous intent behind it. In other words it was a stupid thing to say in a moment of excitation, nothing more.
Now let’s look at the same situation an add the fact that the person making the statement has taken the time and effort to actually sit down and make a list of people they want to harm or kill. They list the person’s name and maybe the way they should be hurt or killed such as; shot, stabbed or blown up. 
In this example we should be very concerned; because a person who creates a list has taken a concrete step in furthering their plan to cause harm. In a criminal court the fact that someone has taken concrete steps to further their plan, no matter what the plan, murder or financial fraud, it is evidence that the crime or the threat is more than just a thought or inappropriate word(s).
To further explain this concept that taking actual steps in a plan is a sign that the potential is greater, let’s say you and friend are sitting around commiserating about the cost of living and you say jokingly- “We should rob a bank” and your friends says “Yes we should that would solve our problems”. The conversation is not criminal even though it about committing a crime, in this case robbing a bank. But if you and your friend decide to go out the next day and acquire a gun and then go choose a bank to rob and take a few pictures of the bank, then you have taken actual steps to commit the crime- this is then a completed conspiracy because you have taken concrete steps to commit the crime.
The same is true for a person creating a kill list, the act of taking a concrete step, in this case, creating a written list of people to kill, indicates clearly that the person has greater intent to commit the act than someone who is just saying something inappropriate or stupid.
It is for this reason that we must properly investigate any type of writing by a student or adult that indicates any propensity for violence. A good investigation will then determine if the list is simply a more detailed venting of negative feelings or if it is the precursor to actual violence. 
Over the course of my career I have seen this one fact emerge time after time, in the investigation after a violent event we learn that some people, if not many people knew the person who committed the violence was upset or posed a danger or had made comments or writings about hurting other people. We also know that in almost every case no one said anything about the potential for violence for two reasons:
1- They didn’t want to come forward and tell on anyone, also known as being a rat, squealing or snitching, especially if they thought they might get caught up in any investigation and be exposed as the source of the information.
2- They don’t have anyone they can trust to tell the information to. When we say they didn’t have anyone they could trust what is meant is that they had no one they could tell that they could trust not to overreact to the information.
These two factors affect adults and kids to this very day, even though we know that after the next violent incident we will find out that people knew about the potential for violence and chose not to say anything. This is deadly and preventable.
To prevent this we have to find strategies to overcome the taboos of coming forward with information. 
One way could be to set up an “Anonymous tip line” or another way to provide the information anonymously. We can develop “No retaliation” policies similar to the ones developed in sexual harassment policies so that people who come forward can remain anonymous or unnamed and if their name is revealed by accident or necessity they will not be subjected to retaliation by the school, the business or co-workers, including the people on whom they provided information.
As an example of the fact that people know about potential violence before and event, in a recent article about the high school shooting in Italy Texas, a young student was quoted in an on-line article by Jamie Stengle and Claudia Lauer of the Associated Press. Here is the pull quotes from that article that make the point.
DALLAS (AP) — A 16-year-old boy accused of shooting a classmate at a Texas high school on Monday had a history of aggressive actions at school, a fellow student said.
The injured student, a 15-year-old girl, was airlifted to a hospital in Dallas following the shooting inside the cafeteria at Italy High School, which is in the small town of Italy about 40 miles (64 kilometers) south of Dallas. The boy fled after being confronted by a school district official but was later arrested.
Cassie Shook, a 17-year-old junior at the school, told The Associated Press that she was driving up to the building when she saw “the doors fly open and everyone screaming and running out of the building.” She said she was angry when she learned who the suspect was because she’d complained about the boy at least twice to school officials, including to a vice principal.
“This could have been avoidable,” she said. “There were so many signs.”
Shook said she first went to school officials after the boy allegedly made a “hit list” in eighth grade and her name was on it. Then last year, the boy got angry during a class and threw a pair of scissors at her friend and later threw a computer against a wall, she said.
The words of this student, Ms. Shook, tell us again that there were noticeable signs of potential danger and behavior that were not taken seriously enough, or were not viewed in the proper light or investigated properly. 
Had they followed my suggestions the killer would not have been in the school and the victims would still be with us.
These changes I suggest will not be easy or comfortable, but are absolutely necessary if we are to save lives. They may require a change in laws or practices; threats of any kind must be taken seriously and investigated as real unless the investigation proves they are not. We must protect people who come forward and we must act quickly and firmly when a threat is made with the safety of everyone at the school or business coming first. Failure to adopt these changes will only lead us to the next funeral and set of speeches about finding a way to stop future violent events.  

Lt. Joseph Pangaro

Joseph Pangaro is a retired Police Lieutenant from the Township of Ocean, Monmouth County, NJ. During his 27 year career, Lieutenant Pangaro served in many capacities. After nine years as a patrol officer, he was transferred to the detective bureau, where he served 12 years. During that time, Lt. Pangaro prepared and executed hundreds of search warrants, testified in numerous high profile criminal court cases, and excelled in the area of criminal investigations, including; homicides, sexual assaults, drug crimes, fraud, burglary, juvenile investigations, economic crimes, vice crimes, quality of life crimes and other crimes of violence. He has acted in undercover capacities and worked with numerous local, county, state, and federal agencies. Joseph Pangaro served as a sergeant in the detective bureau, supervising a group of highly motivated and active officers in the unit and the “Quality of Life” unit.

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