Note: This is a combined Violence Threat Risk Assessment (VTRA) and Traumatic Events Systems (TES) Model ALERT.
“The fields of Violence Threat Risk Assessment (VTRA) and Crisis & Trauma Response are inseparably connected”
Preface (Theoretical Foundation)
Every country, and often regions within countries, have unique conflicts and types of reactive violence some hate driven individuals may use to attempt to resolve them. This includes preferred weapons of choice and the identification of the ‘types’ of people seen as “justifiable targets”. The motivations for violence include factors of history, politics, religion and land claim disputes and in others poverty-driven Cartels and gang-related activities. At the root of what maintains much of the violence is trauma exposure in what we often refer to as the “Trauma-Violence Continuum”.
While North America is acquainted with many forms of violence, the realm of single incident mass shootings has taken root here more than anywhere else. It has been suggested by some that our society and young people, in general, are desensitized to all the violence. By definition, desensitization is when an individual is “less likely to feel shock or distress at scenes of cruelty or suffering by overexposure to such images.” On the contrary we suggest that our society and young people, in general, are actually over sensitized to it. By definition sensitization is “more likely to feel shock or distress at scenes of cruelty or suffering by overexposure to such images.”
As part of over sensitization, some people will unconsciously act as if they are either not impacted or unaware of a mass tragedy such as the New Zealand shooting; not because they are under aroused, but to protect themselves from over arousal. Other people will engage in relentless exposure to convince themselves they can handle it and to find conscious and unconscious insights that they are alright and, if not, how to protect themselves from similar threats. And there are a few, the ones we are the most concerned about, who are desensitized to the horrors or violence and are instead over sensitized to the euphoria of the violence. These are the ones who feel the acts they are exposed to through media and especially social media are “justifiable” and see the targets as either “dehumanized” or “depersonalized”.
Our current concern is that professionals and parents have become so sensitized to the violence that they are engaging in “stimulus avoidance” which means, in the field of Violence Threat Risk Assessment (VTRA), they are “underreacting to blatant indicators that someone is moving on a pathway to violence.” This underreaction is a way for them to lower their own anxiety but at a potentially very dangerous cost of disengaging from their responsibilities for violence (and suicide) prevention. We have clearly demonstrated in earlier ALERTS that societal anxiety has been higher in the past three years than we have seen since the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960’s. The difference now is that media and especially social media is pouring a steady stream of traumatic stimuli into the minds of vulnerable children, youth, and adults who are struggling to find ways to manage it.
Violence Threat Risk Assessment (VTRA) and Violent Extremism
The New Zealand tragedy has elevated societal anxiety for a variety of reasons including the sadness of the losses and the realization that mass shootings and hate related violence is reaching many corners of the Earth. This leaves many feeling helpless or frozen as though there is a storm upon us that we cannot stop. As noted above, the failure to address how these traumatic events are affecting us is actually contributing to the problem. By avoiding or trying to underreact we are disconnecting from being open to the incredibly important pre-incident signs and indicators that someone is moving on a pathway to violence. We know that many perpetrators of mass shootings give conscious and unconscious cries for help before they finally attack. Even those more committed offenders who are not driven by emotional pain still give pre-incident signs and indicators that we must remain extremely vigilant to identify.
Violent extremism may occur at the hands of groups who firmly believe in the justness or divinity of their cause and hate may not always be the primary motivator (such as some international terrorist group conflicts). But there is clearly hate-related violent extremism such as the New Zealand tragedy where immature and narcissistic individuals elevate themselves by the dehumanization or depersonalization of others. These are our “Empty Vessels” that are highly influenced by what they fill themselves with.
In many hate-related mass shootings the perpetrators are depressed, suicidal and homicidal, all at the same time, and intend on their planned attack being their “last act” before either being killed by police or killing themselves. In other hate-related mass shootings the perpetrators identity is fueled by their narcissism and the broader societal dynamics around them. By comparison, in workplace violence, the perpetrators are so focused on self that the violence is meant to harm those they feel have caused them pain: they are influenced by the micro-dynamics of their own lives. But perpetrators of high-profile hate-related mass shootings are more often influenced by macro-dynamics including the language and perspectives of political leaders, mainstream media and especially social media that is consistent with and reflective of their own distorted or disturbed thinking.
We state that “no one can engage in a major act of violence unless they feel justified in attacking that target or type of target.” Macro-dynamics influence the hate-fueled narcissists because the more they can identify with the acts of prior perpetrators and feel they are promoting what many of us consider to be current extremist media and political views, the more it will add to the justification process. Therefore, individuals already highly committed to act violently and, either want to die or are prepared to die, can have one interaction or read one compelling post that becomes, not the cause, but the straw that broke the camel’s back. We also state that “serious violence is an evolutionary process: no one just snaps.” As such, it is often a lengthy process for people to get to the point of being capable of perpetrating mass violence but a single incident that solidifies the decision.
Those not trained in Violence Threat Risk Assessment assume that the offender “just snapped.” The troubling reality is that there are many people who were “primed” for serious violence in the past but didn’t act out because they did not have that last bit of justification they needed to push them over the edge. But white supremacy, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic rhetoric as well as other forms of intolerance are now public platforms for some seeking power and it is contributing to the risk of violence for those already primed to kill. While those who perpetrate the high-profile hate-related mass killings are often more in tune with macro dynamics, the triggering point for finally engaging in the offense is often a micro dynamic such as a break up, job loss or even a personal affront. Too many professionals have focused on the micro dynamics as the cause when it is the interaction between all the variables noted that contribute to serious violence. This requires us to be aware of current high-profile cases and anniversary reactions from past high-profile tragedies and how those interact with micro dynamics of individuals (or groups) we are concerned about.
What to do
1. “Model Calmness.” - The first principle of crisis and trauma response:
This Alert is meant to remind us to do our part in early identification and violence prevention as well as seek out those locally we feel may be influenced traumatically by international events. We have signed multi-stakeholder VTRA protocols that can be applied to all forms of violence so review them and use them as needed. The knowledge of our teams and protocols should allow us to model calmness. As such, we should be attending to any persons of concern through a VTRA lens and any groups or individuals we feel may be traumatized by current events or past traumas through a TES lens.
2. Discuss at the VTRA Committee level in each protocol region whether to do a special mid-year “Fair Notice” to remind students, staff, parents and others that we have a VTRA protocol that can be applied to all forms of violence: local anxiety will decrease as your communities are reminded that you have a process and all threat-related concerns will be taken seriously. This extended critical period may exist until the end of June at the very least.
3. Stay hyper-vigilant when receiving any reports regarding a “Person of Concern”: (i.e. current or former students, staff, parents, coworkers, community members etc.) exhibiting “worrisome behaviors”. Because of now weekly high-profile incidents we should also be watchful of anyone who may be struggling at this time and consider ways to strategically engage them or at least monitor as appropriate.
4. Be aware if there is a shift in the baseline of a “person of concern”: it is important to collect data in collaboration with local support agencies and conduct other assessments prior to taking any disciplinary or interventionary measures. “Stage I (VTRA) overrides suspension.” This includes what the Secret Service referred to as the all-important rehearsal behavior.
5. Be aware: “Video Recorded Assault (VRA)” is a growing form of rehearsal behavior, and part of the justification process as well: Disclosing on social media thoughts or intentions about the coming assault and then engaging what is now referred to as a “Video Recorded Assault (VRA)” such as the New Zealand shooting. Any person of concern who is becoming more fixated on a theme that may suggest potential violence and may be using their recording device (e.g. iPhone) more frequently and in more intrusive ways (e.g. getting in the face of strangers and recording while they enjoy the discomfort the targets feel at the intrusion) may be engaging in conscious or unconscious rehearsal behavior prior to an actual attack.
6. Reinforce your working relationships: Multi-stakeholder agencies in collaboration with Police is the foundation for Stage 1 Violence Threat Risk Assessment (VTRA) process and VTRA Leads should be formally connecting with each other to review the VTRA protocol/process. As noted in the 10th Edition of the “Violence Threat Risk Assessment Protocol: A Community Based Approach” the highest level of assessment and intervention is when these seven stakeholders are the foundational leaders: Hospitals, Police, Universities and Colleges, Schools, Mental Health, Child Protective Services, Probation.
7. Pay close attention to past and current VTRA cases where the person of concern being assessed has inordinate knowledge of violent incidents worldwide or seems fixated on this incident, as well as other recent incidents.
8. Be alert to individuals who identify with the aggressor: Identification with the Aggressor: “The more a troubled individual identifies with the aggressor the more it will increase their level of risk”. Therefore, pay close attention to the media coverage about details of prior offenders and alleged perpetrators. The profile they create and/or glean from social media will provide insight to VTRA team members as to who may be contextually high risk, because they are caught within this current impact zone.
Remember that, in several cases, conspiracy of two or more began through online searches that resulted in “virtual pairing” as well.
9. Be mindful that a critical period is a ‘predictable time frame for increased threat-making or threat-related behavior’ that will extend at least two weeks beyond the extensive media coverage and social media reports of a single incident. But as noted earlier, because of overlapping impact zones from weekly shootings in North America and their heightened and almost continuous repetition on social media sites, we have identified this as an “extended critical period.”
10. Review entirety of digital baseline: All VTRA cases that come to your attention need to include a comprehensive review of the individuals’ online behavior and digital footprint as that is where we find the most blatant pre-incident signs and indicators. The role that social media plays as both a risk enhancer as well as a prominent contributing source of VTRA data has never been more evident or compelling as justification for VTRA protocol activation. An accurate VTRA risk determination cannot be made without reviewing the entirety of the person of concern’s digital baseline.
11. “Strategically” intensify our connections with our highest risk children and youth (or other persons of concern as appropriate) who may be “Empty Vessels”. Remember that proximity to others (family members etc.) does not denote the quality of relationship. Empty vessels are not connected to healthy mature adult supports and because the majority of offenders are imitator’s and not innovators we need to know what they are “filling themselves with”. As noted in the VTRA model, “no one can engage in a serious act of violence unless they feel “justified” in attacking that target or type of target”. But to counter those negative thoughts or ideas, we know that the power of ongoing positive and meaningful human connection is one of the best violence prevention strategies we can utilize, especially if someone is moving on a pathway to serious violence or “contextually” high risk.
12. Increase visible leadership: Local leaders from government, school jurisdictions, police, health, and others should be visible and reaching out in person to leaders from the all targeted religious communities and assuring them we are truly friends and allies. Young people need to see and hear that ALL the adults are working together to protect them. We have learned in the past that when young people get the message that we (the adults) cannot protect them or are not taking their fears seriously, that an increase in weapons possession will occur as the youth will simply “arm themselves”. This is the dangerous dynamic present in too many cities already.
13. Connect with parents and caregivers: As VTRA and TES Leads, find ways to connect with parents and caregivers in general but specifically those who you feel may need support. Remind them that if they are concerned about their child (including adult child) they can reach out to us. We coined the term “Bedroom Dynamic” years ago because the vast number of single-incident mass shootings occurred at the hands of perpetrators where blatant evidence of their planning was in their bedrooms. Nothing has changed in that regard and the fact that we still find evidence of planning there confirms that parents and caregivers may have some of the best access to information about risk: many just don’t know where or how to ask for help.
14. Self-care: Both the weight and importance of the work of VTRA and Crisis/Trauma Response denotes we not leave the responsibility in the hands of one designated leader. Instead we recommend formalized co-leadership structures so that the designated leader can be “freed from leadership responsibility” from time to time to ensure we do not burn out our key staff responsible for VTRA and TES leadership. Leaders and co-leaders who can model calmness and are the most hopeful can have a significant influence on system anxiety. Leaders must be able to instill confidence that we can very much manage our current circumstance and consequently lower the level of risk over time. With increased collaboration and organized multi-stakeholder protocols for violence prevention and trauma response, community enhancement becomes the system-strengthening outcome.
15. Collaborate and Consult: If any VTRA team finds themselves in a heated discussion whether to activate the Protocol or not, then you have already decided. Better safe than sorry – activate the VTRA Protocol. However, because there are so many new emerging dynamics associated with the modern-day evolutionary process and the manifestation of violence, in all its’ forms, our counsel is simple: CONSULT, CONSULT, CONSULT.
Traumatic Event Systems (TES) Model: New Dynamics of High-Profile Violence and Trauma
“The fields of Violence Threat Risk Assessment (VTRA) and Crisis & Trauma Response are inseparably connected.”
In the TES Model we emphasize the Trauma-Violence Continuum wherein “violence often begets trauma but trauma can also beget violence.” In other words, someone whose home has been vandalized three times in the last three months may find their anxiety so high because of not knowing who the offender is. Why they are being targeted? Is it going to happen again? Is the vandalism a precursor to something worse? To lower their increasing anxiety, for the first time ever, they buy a gun and a month later are pointing it at a stranger who is on their property, not to cause harm, but to seek help due to car failure and a dead cellphone battery that prevented them from simply calling for help. But in the hands of a person now “primed for violence” the outcome is tragic. A significant amount of violence is “trauma-generated.”
A principle of human functioning is “the higher the anxiety the greater the symptom development.” This is true of us as individuals, families, communities and even nations: the higher our anxiety the greater the symptom development. In asking thousands of professionals across North America over the past three years if ‘they feel societal anxiety is higher now than even five years ago’ the answer is usually a resounding “Yes”.’
The primary focus for this ALERT is that VTRA and TES trained professionals must constantly look through both a VTRA and TES (trauma) lens at both the micro dynamics before them and the macro dynamics surrounding them. The complexities of high-profile violence, as it influences North America in particular, is the shifting sympathies and alliances that occur with many depending on what “group” was victimized today. This means today some stand with the Muslim Community, tomorrow some stand with the Jewish Community, and next week some stand with another race, religion, or culture who was victimized in a single incident. The problem is that, when someone associated with the community we supported last week is reported to be a perpetrator this week, alliances are immediately shifted and they are now the enemy. It is “crazy making behavior.”
As noted in the VTRA section of this ALERT; when people (and groups of people) feel unsafe and believe the overall system (government, police, helping agencies and their own internal religious or community leaders) cannot protect them they will arm themselves. But we also see that groups or people targeted for hate may become traumatically closed as a way of coping. Traumatically closed systems will develop such a rigid filter around them and their loved ones that those outside the system who want to help may be rebuffed for fear “they really want to cause us harm.” As traumatized systems withdraw from the larger community system to protect themselves it also elevates the suspicion of those who are not a threat that maybe they are withdrawing because they “hate us and mean us harm.” This is called “circularity” in human systems and it becomes, as we are seeing, a negative and sometimes dangerous self-perpetuating human system dynamic.
Every group targeted by hate is forced by this societal pathology to cycle through being viewed at times as victims and at other times viewed as perpetrators. Again, it is “crazy making behavior.” The reality is, the Trauma-Violence Continuum is constantly at work, in every subsystem where one or two troubled individuals, even from a “good home” can identify with people of influence who sow hate for power and then have it accelerated by media and especially social media to culminate in the mass shootings of which we have experienced too many.
Since the higher the anxiety the greater the symptom development then it follows: “the lower the anxiety the lesser the symptom development.” This means that, with both VTRA applications and when looking at this Extended Critical Period through a TES (trauma) lens, it will allow us to take steps to lower anxiety at a community level.
What to do
1. Identify those in need and seek them out: As leaders, identify any members in your communities who may be part of a group recently targeted by a single incident mass shooting. In this circumstance, local leaders of systems and subsystems should be reaching out to the Muslim Community leadership to offer support in areas they can actually assist. This may be emotional support (“we stand with you”), it may be physical support to protect buildings including homes and places of worship, it may be to assess threats they have received or feel may exist. It may even be to resolve an old conflict we had locally and just left unresolved but is currently preventing those in need of support from either asking or accepting it when offered.
2. Do not avoid offering support because of being rebuffed by one leader. We are all engaged in the human experience and one leader may be traumatically closed and say “we are fine” when many others want help, so be strategic. Find other leaders or coleaders who may be able to bridge the gap and invite us in.
3. Reach out to other groups who have been targeted by hate in the past but are not the focus of the current incident. Many people will have “rekindled trauma” as the current tragedy reminds them of their own past experiences. In this media saturated generation we live in, groups that have been targeted by hate and violence are used to people showing up to help them when the cameras are recording, and the world is watching. But once the media has moved to a new story they are aware of how quickly abandonment can occur. This dynamic alone can generate hurt and anger in some and contribute to the Trauma-Violence Continuum.
4. Genuine support: Violence prevention and traumatic aftermath support are successful when all involved are engaged in ongoing and genuine relationship building.
5. Stay the course of support: Vigils held jointly by religious denominations around the world saying “an attack against you is an attack against us all” are wonderful to see if they are genuine. Even in these contexts, some leaders show up for the cameras and disappear just as quickly when the world is no longer engaged. Our young adults and children watch us and many notice the incongruencies of the adult world around them. Therefore, a theme for every group of religious leaders that have come together, as well as, government leaders, multi-stakeholder leaders and our youth leaders should be: “what are we going to do when the cameras are gone.”
6. Parents and caregivers need to increase their interest in the children and youth in their care. Parents and grandparents of adult children need to increase their interest in their children and grandchildren respectively. The more we interact with children in this current climate the more we are seeing, that with many, their anxiety is very high because of both micro and macro dynamics are affecting their lives. However, because the adults are not talking to them about the current state of affairs, many are not talking with the adults. There is still this old-fashioned belief that “if my child needs to talk they know I’m here,” when in reality if we don’t take the lead they just learn we are not there. In otherwise well-meaning homes we have empty vessels who are not connected to healthy mature adult supports, and when it becomes apparent to them that they are alone, they take up full time residence in social media!
7. Promote meaningful conversations: Parents/Caregivers and professionals involved with school-aged children should be meeting to have “meaningful conversations” amongst ourselves about our local circumstances and then get organized to engage with our children and youth for meaningful conversations with the goal of more visible connection in each other’s lives.
8. Strategically increase our connection with people of concern: In VTRA we state “the more a troubled individual can identify with the aggressor the more it will increase their symptom development” and therefore their violence risk. But the reverse is also true that the more an individual can identify with the victims of violence and learn compassion it will lower their risk if they receive compassion also. This is why the Empty Vessel Dynamic is such an important focus for both VTRA and trauma intervention.
The greatest weight on some leaders in some communities is not knowing how to work to decrease the frequency and intensity of violence or how to respond if it was to occur in a high-profile way. That does not need to be anyone’s lot. We understand that we can, with effort, better identify threats and intervene before serious violence occurs. We also know that formal multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder teams with formal protocols in violence threat risk assessment and systems-oriented trauma response can slow down and eliminate, over time, the trauma-violence continuum.
J. Kevin Cameron, M.Sc., R.S.W., B.C.E.T.S., B.C.S.C.R.
Executive Director, North American Center for Threat Assessment and Trauma Response
Lionel Rabb, President and CEO
North American Center for Threat Assessment and Trauma Response (NACTATR US)
Senior Advisors and Contributors:
Dr. William Pollack
Dr. Marleen Wong
Dr. Tony Beliz