Nova Scotia Mass Shooting and COVID-19 (VTRA and TES Applications)
Community Violence Threat Risk Assessment (VTRA™) Protocols Should be Revisited to Ensure They Are Operating at The Highest Level
We have consistently reminded professionals about the broad use of our Community VTRA™ Protocols for all forms of violence and for all Persons of Concern (POC) whether child or adult. This means that government agencies from mental health, social services, probation and parole as well as police, fire, hospitals, schools and other workplaces need to be attentive to any evidence someone may be moving on a pathway to serious violence. They also need to be consistently giving “Fair Notice” that there are protocols in place and anyone with a concern should never hesitate to call police or other VTRA™ partner agencies.
Serious violence is an evolutionary process, no one just snaps. While the details of the Nova Scotia tragedy are unfolding we know that a significant “Critical Period” has begun where others who can identify with the actions of the perpetrator will have their own risk levels increased. High-profile violence does not cause those caught within the “Impact Zone” to go from “zero to sixty” to duplicate the crime themselves. Instead, high-profile violence intensifies already existing symptoms in troubled individuals. In essence, someone watching the coverage of this tragedy who was already thinking of killing others and maybe themselves, will have an acute spike in their level of risk for at least the next two weeks.
Remember that the fields of Violence Threat Risk Assessment and Crisis/Trauma Response are inseparably connected. Our Fourth “COVID-19 E-Alert” was released on April 16, 2020 reminding professionals of this very issue due to the growing relationship pressures generated from being quarantined. Sadly, the Nova Scotia shootings both highlight and intensify the reality that serious violence can beget trauma but trauma can also beget violence. As noted:
High-profile trauma intensifies already existing symptoms in individuals and systems (families, workplaces, communities, etc.). Many individuals whose pre-COVID functioning was already distressed or who already exhibited violence potential or suicidal ideation will experience increased shifts in their baseline behaviour as the quarantine extends. Even in the best of family circumstances, too much time together with the ones we love will naturally result in an increase in anxiety triggering a distance phase where we need time apart until separateness rekindles the desire to be close again. In family therapy we refer to this as the “Closeness-Distance Cycle”.
Many of our higher risk individuals, families and their children were able to maintain some level of functionality because attending school for the children and work for the parents, caregivers or partners helped them to “bind” (manage) the anxiety that ongoing closeness would have generated. Quarantining, job loss or the threat of job loss during the pandemic, along with unabated closeness, has intensified family anxiety and therefore risks that may have laid dormant pre-COVID are now being activated. We are already seeing the increase in domestic/relational violence as well as child abuse in many regions. While most individuals and families will adjust to this temporary circumstance, others will not.
This is the most unique North American context for a mass shooting to occur because we are already in an “Extended Critical Period” from the COVID-19 pandemic. This means we have two “Overlapping Impact Zones” that will dramatically increase the risk for violence or murder-suicide by those already primed for serious violence. Prevention comes from skillful collaboration.
Note: This is a combined Violence Threat Risk Assessment (VTRA™) and Traumatic Events Systems (TES™) Model ALERT.
Violence Threat Risk Assessment (VTRA™) Applications
In many 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.” Therefore, individuals already highly committed to act violently 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. That the weight of the pandemic played a role in the Nova Scotia shootings is possible but the apparent planning denotes there was a high level of sustained commitment long before the act occurred.
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. 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. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.”
9. 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.
10. 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.
11. Increase visible leadership: Local leaders from government, school jurisdictions, police, health, and others. 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.
12. 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.
13. 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.
14. 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”.’ Overlay COVID-19 and a mass shooting and we have a very tenuous situation.
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 offer support in areas they can actually assist. This may be emotional support (“we stand with you”), it may be physical support or financial.
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 co-leaders who may be able to bridge the gap and invite us in.
3. Reach out to other groups who have been targeted. Many people will have “rekindled trauma” as the current tragedy reminds them of their own past experiences. In this media saturated generation, 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. 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!<br>
6. 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.
7. All loss should be treated with the same degree of compassion and understanding. We consistently say, “treat the big things big and the little things little” and this is big. Sadly, COVID-19 media coverage has dominated the news to the point that it has become traumatic stimuli to so many that other loses are viewed by some as less severe if they are not pandemic related. We must not distinguish between traumatic events: all loss is big to those affected.
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.
Board Certified Expert in Traumatic Stress
Diplomate, American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress
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
Patrick G. Rivard