Threat Assessment: Assessing the Risk of Targeted Violence

Threat Assessment: Assessing the Risk of Targeted Violence
Bryan Vossekuil
The Metis Group, Inc., Haymarket, Virginia
Robert A. Fein
Harvard Medical School and The Metis Group,
Inc., Haymarket, Virginia
John M. Berglund
The Metis Group, Inc., Haymarket, Virginia
In this article, the authors provide a perspective on some history of threat assessment
and its development. The article describes some findings from two studies. The first, the
Exceptional Case Study Project (ECSP), analyzed the thinking and behavior, communications, planning strategies, target selection, mental health histories and motives of 83
attackers and near-attackers of persons selected for attack because of their public status.
The second study, the Safe School Initiative (SSI), conducted a similar analysis of 37
targeted attacks in schools. In both studies, the perspective of the attacker is incorporated into study findings. Two brief case studies, suggested principles of threat assessment, key findings drawn from both studies and their implications for prevention, and
investigative questions that might help guide a threat assessment are included. Several
questions are raised that pose challenges and opportunities for the further advancement
of the emerging discipline of threat assessment.
Keywords: threat assessment, targeted violence, assassination, school violence, violence
Due to the fact that crank letter writing is becoming a greater problem than ever before in the
history of the Service, it has become necessary to
revise and amplify the procedure related to the
handling of the writers of obscene, threatening,
and annoying letters to the President. . . . The
responsibility of the Secret Service has never
been so grave as at this time, and all personnel
are instructed to follow the new procedure,
which will be effective immediately, faithfully,
and conscientiously.
The preceding guidance is part of the December 5, 1940 Memorandum to Agents from the
Agent in Charge of the newly created Secret
Service Protective Research Section, which was
charged with collecting and evaluating information about persons and groups who posed a
danger to the president and formalizing that
evaluation process.
Almost 50 years later, in 1988 and 1989, the
Intelligence Division, successor to the Protective Research Section, was challenged by four
cases which came to its attention. Four men
were arrested, each having engaged in prolonged efforts to circumvent Secret Service protective measures in order to attack a Service
protectee. Three of the four traveled extensively
in their attempts to do so. None of them knew
each other; each engaged in those efforts for a
period of from several months to nearly 3 years.
Three were not previously known by the Secret
Service; one was. None of the four men communicated a threat in advance of attempting to
circumvent security with their weapon. None
had hostile feelings toward their target. Two
were obviously mentally ill; the others were not.
None of the four had any arrest for violent crime
or history of violence. Taken together, they
challenged the then prevalent thinking in the
Service about the personal characteristics and
Bryan Vossekuil, The Metis Group, Inc., Haymarket,
Virginia; Robert A. Fein, Harvard Medical School and The
Metis Group, Inc.; John M. Berglund, The Metis Group,
The authors thank Randy Borum for his support throughout the conduct of both studies and Chief Arthur Kelly
(Retired) for his ongoing support and editorial review.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to
Bryan Vossekuil, The Metis Group, Inc., P.O. Box 829, Haymarket, VA 20168. E-mail: [email protected]
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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
Journal of Threat Assessment and Management © 2016 American Psychological Association
2015, Vol. 2, No. 3-4, 243–254 2169-4842/15/$12.00
background that would likely describe a potential attacker.
In 1990, two of the authors of this article
were asked to reexamine the then prevalent
beliefs about the prevention of assassination in
the Secret Service and about persons most likely
to engage in assassination behavior.
To begin this effort, the authors reviewed
academic and professional literature on assassination and on violence in general. It seemed
clear that assassination attempts differed from
much other violence. The authors coined the
term targeted violence and defined it as violence
in which there was a known or knowable attacker and a known or knowable target (Fein,
Vossekuil, & Holden, 1995). Later, targeted
violence came to include instances of workplace
violence, stalking, certain school shootings, and
some terrorist attacks.
The Exceptional Case Study
Project (ECSP)
The Exceptional Case Study Project was an
operational study which analyzed the thinking
and behavior of all persons known to have attacked, or approached with a weapon with the
apparent intent of attacking, a prominent public
official or public figure in the United States
from 1949 to 1995. Its goal was to generate
knowledge that could be used by Secret Service
agents and other law enforcement professionals
to prevent attacks on public officials. Eightythree subjects were identified who engaged in
74 attacks or near-lethal approaches. (There
were 67 subjects who attacked alone; 16 subjects were part of six groups.) Thirty-four of the
83 attacked their target; 40 incidents were nearlethal approaches. Most often the target was the
The information gathered and the interviews
of subjects of the study focused on the following seven questions:
How did these individuals develop the idea
of assassination, and how did they move
from the idea of assassination to lethal or
near-lethal action?
What were the individuals’ motives?
How did the individuals select their target(s)?
How did the individuals plan their attacks?
What communications, if any, did individuals make before their attacks or nearlethal approaches?
What role, if any, did symptoms of mental
illness play in individuals’ assassination
Were there key life experiences or incidents that appeared to affect individuals’
assassination interests or behaviors?
Case of Ruth Ann Steinhagen
When you first thought of harming Eddie
Waitkus, what were you thinking of doing?
Doing him and myself in. I have no idea where the idea
came from. I was hoping to die. (Ruth Ann Steinhagen,
October 7, 1995)
On June 17, 1949, Ruth Ann Steinhagen attended a baseball game in Chicago between the
Chicago Cubs and the Philadelphia Phillies to
watch Eddie Waitkus, first baseman for the
Phillies, in whom she had developed an interest
over the previous 3 years when Waitkus played
for the Chicago Cubs. She had learned from the
newspaper the hotel where the Phillies were
staying, and she booked a room there herself.
Steinhagen sent a note to Waitkus inviting him
to her room. When he responded, she shot him
with a .22 caliber rifle she had purchased earlier
for that purpose. Waitkus was nearly fatally
wounded but went on to recover and complete a
career with Philadelphia and Baltimore that
lasted until 1955.
In 1949, Ruth Ann Steinhagen was 19 years
old. According to her mother, Ruth Ann had
become obsessed with Waitkus, talked nonstop
about him, and filled her room with his photos
and memorabilia, including ticket stubs that she
collected over the previous 2 years from Cubs
games. Her family sought the assistance of two
psychiatrists. Two friends were aware of her
sustained interest in Waitkus, one of whom became aware of her plan. Steinhagen’s mother
said her daughter had told her a year earlier of
her idea of getting a gun to shoot him. According to Steinhagen’s obituary in 2013, she knew
Waitkus was from Boston so she began to eat
baked beans. She also learned that he was Lithuanian so she tried to teach herself the language.
After initially being charged with attempted
murder, she was ruled insane and committed to
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a state hospital from which she was released
after 33 months.
Ms. Steinhagen was among several persons
in the ECSP who developed interests in celebrities and national figures and attacked them.
Hers was the oldest case in the ECSP—some 66
years ago. When located in 1995, she declined
to be interviewed due to health concerns and her
desire for privacy. She agreed, however, to respond to a questionnaire about the development
of her interest in Waitkus, her decision to shoot
him, her motive for doing so, and whom she
talked with about her plan. Below are excerpts
from that questionnaire:
What was going on in your life around the time when
you first thought of attacking Eddie Waitkus?
I was 19 and it was 1949. I had a job and boyfriend. I
was young and had a future. But in the strange state of
mind I was in, as well as I can remember, I felt there
was nothing. Maybe I was in a state of depression.
When you first thought of harming Eddie Waitkus,
what were you thinking of doing and what were you
hoping to accomplish?
Doing him and myself in, and I was hoping to die.
Did you talk with anyone about the idea of attacking
Only Helen and she thought I was joking.
When did you decide to attack him and did you plan it?
In 1949 and yes. I learned from the newspaper where
he was staying.
What could have happened to prevent your action?
Anything at all would have prevented me. If he hadn’t
come to my room, I was going to go home…. When
he didn’t come right away, I almost went home. If the
gun shop hadn’t sold me the gun, or if I could have
gotten over my depressed mood.
If a police officer would have approached you that day,
what would you have said?
I’d have turned myself in.
It just seems as though this happened to another person
altogether. I can’t believe it was me.
Like other ECSP subjects, Ruth Ann Steinhagen developed an interest in her target over
time, in her case over a period of 3 years. Her
fascination with him was known to a number of
people including her parents, at least two
friends and two psychiatrists. She told her
mother about her intentions, she planned her
attack, and she learned where Waitkus was staying. Her goal was to kill him and to kill herself.
While she appeared resolute in her goal, she
also showed some signs of ambivalence close to
the time of attack.
After being released from a mental hospital
early in the 1950s, Ruth Ann Steinhagen lived
in obscurity for over 60 years. Her shooting of
Eddie Waitkus inspired the book and the movie
The Natural.
The Safe School Initiative (SSI)
From 1974 to 2000, there were 37 incidents
of targeted school violence that occurred in 27
states. These shootings created great concern
about the safety and security about this nation’s
schools and prompted two central questions:
“Could we have known these attacks were being
planned?” and “What could we have done to
prevent them?”
In 1999, after the attack at Columbine, the
Secret Service and the Department of Education
worked together to better understand the reasons for these shootings, which like the recently
concluded ECSP, involved an extensive examination of the thinking, behavior, motives and
goals of those who committed those targeted
acts of violence. Like the ECSP, the goal of the
Safe School Initiative was to develop information to craft threat assessment strategies that
could be offered to those responsible for preventing such tragedies.
The key study questions, while tailored to the
features of schools and younger attackers, mirrored the key questions of the ECSP. In both
studies, detailed review of the incidents and
personal histories of the attackers were supplemented by personal interviews of those who
committed such attacks. These interviews permitted attackers to describe how and why they
developed and carried out their idea to attack,
their motives and goals, and their personal and
life circumstances at the time.
In both the ECSP and the SSI, criminal justice, educational, judicial, mental health, social
service, and public records were reviewed. A
detailed codebook, with several hundred variables, was developed for each study. Two coders coded information about each subject. In
addition to the information from records, more
than 20 interviews were conducted of ECSP
subjects, and 10 interviews were conducted of
school shooters.
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Major Findings From the ECSP and
the SSI
Targeted Attacks Are Rarely Sudden,
Impulsive Acts
In neither study did attackers “just snap.”
Their behavior was not impulsive. Attacks by
assassins and school shooters appeared to be the
end result of thinking and behavior that occurred over time and included several steps.
Consideration and selection of a target(s), developing a plan, obtaining the means, and assessing security were part of a decision-making
and preparatory process. That process was often
time consuming and accompanied by bursts of
activity—followed by periods of inactivity—
and sometimes filled with ambivalence.
Implications. The fact that attacks are not
impulsive and that information about intent and
planning is potentially knowable offers an opportunity to learn about the possibility of an
attack and prevent it. The potential attacker’s
behavior and written and oral communications
may provide information that an attack is being
Prior to the Attacks, Others Often Knew
About the Attacker’s Idea/Plan
In both the ECSP and the SSI, a significant
percentage of subjects communicated information about their plans and ideas to others before
their attack. In the ECSP, over 75% of the study
subjects communicated such information to others—family members, friends, the target, coworkers and law enforcement. Some wrote
about their ideas, motives and plans in journals
or diaries. About one in 10 persons communicated a threat to the target or law enforcement.
In the SSI, in over 80% of the cases at least
one person knew about the plans and intentions
of the attacker; in almost 60% of the cases more
than one person knew such information. In almost all those cases, those who had such knowledge were friends, schoolmates or siblings.
Known information often included specific details of the attack including time, date and targets. Some school shooters told others something big was going to happen and even warned
others to stay away from school that day.
Implications. In both studies, oftentimes
peers, classmates and family members had learned
information about possible or planned attacks.
This suggests that “bystanders” can be instrumental in preventing such attacks. Bystanders may not
either know to whom the information should be
reported or may not trust the fairness of the system
responsible for evaluating such information. It is
likely that that those who learn information about
potential instances of targeted violence will be
more likely to report what they heard if they
believe the response by authorities will be fair and
Most Attackers Did Not Threaten Their
Targets Directly Prior to the Attack
In both studies, while the attacker communicated often about his plans and idea of his attack,
rarely did he communicate a direct threat to the
target or to law enforcement about the target.1
Implications. Although most attackers did
not make direct threats to their targets, we believe that all threats should be carefully investigated and evaluated. There are those who
make threats, yet do not pose threats. There are
those who pose threats yet do not make threats.
A key responsibility of a threat assessor is to
examine what is known about a subject’s behavior that indicates the possibility of an attack
and then determine whether a person poses a
threat, whether or not the subject has made a
There Is No Accurate or Useful “Profile” of
an Assassin or a School Shooter
The demographic, personality, and social
characteristics of the attackers varied substantially. ECSP subjects varied in age, education,
mobility, mental health and criminal histories,
histories of violence, motives, employment, occupation and substance abuse.
Likewise in the SSI, no set of traits, except
gender, described all or even the majority of
subjects. School shooters varied in their race,
academic performance, family, economic and
financial background, social relationships, disciplinary record, extracurricular activities, and
participation in religious activities.
1 Because the great majority of attackers and near-lethal
approachers in the ECSP were male, and all of the school
shooters in the SSI were male, thus we use the term he to
refer to all subjects.
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Implications. Using profiles to either identify or evaluate whether a person is on a path to
attack is not effective. Focus is better placed
upon communications and behavior rather than
traits or individual characteristics.
Most Attackers Had Difficulty Coping With
Significant Losses or Failures
Among ECSP subjects, more than half experienced a significant stressful situation in the
year before their attack or near-lethal approach.
This may have included rejection by family or
friends, failure at marriage, work or school, or
illness or death of a loved one. More than half
were known to have experienced periods of
major despair or depression and almost two
thirds had suicidal histories.
Among SSI attackers, almost all appeared to
have experienced failures, losses or disappointment prior to the attack. These included loss of
a loved one, loss of a significant relationship,
loss of status, or a significant health issue for
himself or a loved one. Many were depressed
and had suicidal histories.
Implications. Any threat assessment inquiry should include careful attention to
whether the person of concern may be struggling with major loss or perceived failure, particularly where these losses or failures might
prompt feelings of desperation or hopelessness.
Most Attackers Had Behaved in a Way
That Concerned Others in Their Lives
Prior to the Attack
More than 9 out of 10 students who committed attacks engaged in some behavior that concerned others-school officials, parents, teachers,
police, students. In over 75% of the cases, at
least three people became concerned about the
welfare of that student. For example, the below
poem was written by a student as a part of an
English homework assignment.
Sinking into bed,
Homicidal thoughts filling my head
Suicidal thoughts, not gone, but fleeing
Because It’s other peoples death I’m seeing
Suicide or homicide,
Homicide or Suicide,
Into sleep I’m sinking,
Why me, I’m thinking?
Homicidal and suicidal thoughts intermixing,
I know my life’s not worth fixing.
The student’s teacher, a guidance counselor,
and the school principal recognized that the
student needed help. But help was not provided.
The student, who had a history of trying and
failing to kill himself, several days later, shot
and killed a teacher and a janitor at his school,
hoping that he would get the death penalty and
be executed by the state.
Implications. Students who carried out attacks at schools were not invisible. They often
engaged in behaviors that were noticed by others who became concerned. Such information
could prompt additional inquiry about planned
violence or self-harm.
Many Felt Bullied, Persecuted, or Injured
Prior to the Attack
Although the SSI had no specific measurement for bullying, almost 3/4 of the attackers
felt they were subjected to harassment and mistreatment by their fellow-students and peers that
was oftentimes prolonged and severe. This mistreatment by peers and fellow-students in some
instances commenced as early as elementary
school and was described by some in terms that
approached torment.
Implications. The prevalence of the perception of severe bullying in these cases supports the efforts of those who seek to reduce it.
Bullying—actual or perceived—is an important
topic to explore in the assessment of a student
who may be considering engaging in an attack
at school.
Most Attackers Had Access to Weapons—and
Had Used Weapons—Prior to the Attack
Among ECSP subjects, most had histories of
weapons use, but fewer than 20% had an arrest
for a crime involving a firearm.
Among SSI subjects, almost two thirds of
attackers had a history of weapons use prior to
the attack. In most cases the weapons were
obtained from the young person’s home or the
home of a relative and were legally owned. In
many school shooter cases, others students were
involved in some capacity or had some knowledge of the plans of the attacker.
In over one half of the attacks in schools the
attacker was assisted by others. Sometimes this
assistance took the form of encouragement.
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Other times it included assistance in planning,
target selection and training in operating a
Implications. This finding underscores the
importance of paying attention to friends and
peers of the student of concern not only as
sources of information but also to understand
the role they may play in the student’s decisionmaking about whether to carry out an attack.
Case of Evan Ramsey
Wednesday is going to be the best day of my life.
(Evan Ramsey to his brother, four days before killing
the principal and a student and wounding two other
students in his high school)
On February 19, 1997, 16-year-old Evan
Ramsey walked into his high school in
Bethel, a remote tundra town in western
Alaska, and opened fire on his fellow students
with a shotgun that he had concealed in his
baggy jeans. He killed one student and
wounded two others as a group of close to two
dozen fellow students watched from an upper
balcony overlooking the main lobby. They
had been told to assemble there. Some knew
of Evan’s plan to shoot people while others
only knew Evan was going to do something
spectacular. After shooting students, Evan encountered the school principal and shot him
as well, killing him. Evan intended to kill
himself afterward but was dissuaded from
doing so by a teacher with whom he had a
good relationship. He surrendered to the police after discharging several additional
Evan Ramsey was interviewed in October,
1999, after being convicted of charges that
included two counts of first degree murder
and being sentenced to two 100-year sentences in prison. Consistent with records in
his file, Evan reported that when he was 6, his
father was sentenced to prison for 10 years.
Evan and his two brothers lived with their
mother for a period of time. She had a number
of serious problems and was seen as neglectful by social service authorities. Evan and his
brothers were placed in a series of foster
homes and institutions. Eventually, Evan and
his younger brother were placed in the home
of the superintendent of the Bethel regional
Evan reported that he was bullied mercilessly at school. He was teased and called
names, hit, had things thrown at him and had
signs put on his back. Evan sought help from
school officials to stop the bullying. After
they intervened, the bullying apparently
stopped for a brief period of time. Then it
started up again. Evan said that he first developed the idea of bringing a gun his school
about two weeks before he did so. Initially,
his idea was to scare other students who had
been bullying him so they would stop. He told
two friends about his idea. They responded
that he needed to do more than just bring a
gun to school and that kids would continue to
bother him if he didn’t shoot at people. Fourteen targets were selected, three by Evan and
11 by his two friends. Only one of the 14, the
principal, was shot. The principal’s name was
placed on the list by Evan’s two friends.
The night before the shooting, Evan called
several people and told them to meet him in the
library mezzanine as he had something to tell
them. He did so to ensure they were not in the
lower lobby. One of his friends pressed him as
to the purpose of meeting there. Evan told her of
his plans. He said that she pleaded with him not
to carry out his plan, so he assured her that he
had changed his mind. She did not tell anyone
else about the call. On the morning of the shooting over two dozen students congregated in the
upper lobby. One brought a camera with which
to record the shooting. Another student who
was attempting to move from the lower lobby to
the mezzanine was told to return to the lobby as
she was “on the list.”
In the interview, Evan spoke freely about the
development of his idea and motive to bring a
gun to school and how, with the encouragement
of two friends, it changed from just brandishing
it to shooting at people. He also talked about
selecting targets with the help of the same two
friends, one of whom also showed him how to
load the shotgun. He described how, when, and
with whom he communicated information about
his plans and what the reactions were. He also
said he intended to commit suicide after shooting others. Below are excerpts from that interview:
When did the idea of bringing a gun to school first
come up?
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Two weeks before the shooting. I was going to bring
the shotgun from the house and scare everybody.
What did you hope to accomplish?
To get everyone to leave me alone. The school wasn’t
doing anything.
Somewhere in the conversation (with the two friends)
I decided I was going to try and kill myself. Thinking
about my situation—school is not going so good, getting messed with in school, I don’t know my family. I
am in a foster home. Everything looked real bad. I was
going to commit suicide.
Why the school?
That’s where most of my pain and suffering was.
If the principal had learned of your plans and had
approached you, what would you have said?
I would have told him the truth.
Implications for Threat Assessments
and Programs
Principles of threat assessment. The following six principles form the foundation of the
threat assessment process:
Targeted violence is the end result of an
understandable, and oftentimes discernible,
process of thinking and behavior. Findings in
both the ECSP and the SSI demonstrate that
attackers did not commit their acts of targeted
violence on impulse. The attacker did not simply snap, but rather engaged in planning, weapons acquisition, communications, and target selection, a process that occurred over weeks,
months and sometimes years.
Targeted violence stems from an interaction
among the individual, the situation, the setting, and the target. In evaluating the risk
posed by a potential attacker, information must
be gathered that responds to the question: How
has this person dealt with situations in the past
that may have led him to see life as unbearably
Investigators should examine recent and current life circumstances that have been overwhelmingly stressful. Examples may include
bullying or perceived humiliation, loss of relationships or status, and perceived failures leading to feelings of hopelessness. Significant situational stress appears to have been experienced
in both ECSP and SSI attackers.
What is the setting around a person when he
comes to the attention of authorities of possibly
posing a risk of targeted violence? Is it one in
which peers, friends, fellow workers or fellow
students respond by providing help, encouragement and assistance to facilitate nonviolent
problem solving? Or do they ignore or even
encourage or otherwise facilitate the person in
going forward with his attack?
In assessing the risk of an attack, those with
protective responsibilities must consider possible targets. Sometimes the target may be a specific person or institution (a school, e.g.) with
whom the potential attacker has current or former interactions. Other times the attacker may
choose a more general target or one of a category of targets.
An investigative, skeptical, inquisitive mindset is critical to successful threat assessment.
Threat assessments include gathering and reviewing information from multiple sources
about the person and motives, communications,
and possible attack-related behavior. Information should be viewed objectively, skeptically
and continuously. Key facts should be carefully
Effective threat assessment is based on facts
rather than on characteristics or “traits.”.
Conclusions about risk posed by a potential
attacker ought to be reached through consideration of the facts about the person of concern
and the situation, rather than by analyzing traits
or characteristics of the potential attacker. Information about intent, motive and ability is of
greater importance than information about appearance and demeanor.
An integrated systems approach should
guide threat assessment inquiries and
investigations. Information essential to the investigation of a possible threatening situation
may be known to different individuals and organizations within a community. Law enforcement and school officials, friends, coworkers,
community agencies, families and others may
each have relevant but partial information about
a person of concern. An integrated systems approach recognizes the need for cooperation and
partnerships among law enforcement, schools,
mental health and community agencies, courts,
worksites and others.
The central question in a threat assessment
inquiry or investigation is whether a student
poses a threat, not whether a student has made
a threat. Many persons who threaten harm
pose little or no risk of carrying out a threat.
Individuals who are found to pose threats may
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not make threats. This underscores the importance of making judgments based upon the person’s behavior and communications rather than
upon the expression of a threat. Nevertheless,
threats of violence should not be dismissed and
should be promptly investigated.
Key Questions in a Threat Assessment
At the conclusion of the ECSP, the Secret
Service’s protective intelligence program was
strengthened through incorporating what had
been learned about the thinking, behavior, and
motives of attackers and near-attackers of Secret Service protectees into its investigative and
assessment efforts.
An attack is the culmination of a series of
decisions and activities. Attackers proceed
along a path to attack. An investigator’s task is
to determine if a subject has stepped out onto
this path. What information indicates that the
subject is moving on a path to attack or is not on
such a path? What clues has the subject left
behind? How far has the subject traveled along
a path to attack? How fast is the subject moving? How might the subject be stopped?
The following questions can help systematically guide the investigation and evaluation process. They have been developed from the ECSP
and SSI but are not designed to be “scored” or
applied mechanically. These questions should
be looked at as dynamic and should be used in
accordance with the context of the information
gathered and the behaviors observed or reported. Attention should be focused on a subject’s behavior and actions, rather than primarily on a subject’s statements.
What are the subject’s motives and goals?
ECSP and SSI analyses point to the importance
of ascertaining a subject’s motive(s). Assessment of motives may be achieved by careful
examination of a subject’s thinking and behavior. Understanding the motive(s) of a subject
can help an investigator assess the purpose of
the subject’s activities and the risk that a subject
might pose.
Knowledge of a subject’s motive(s) may
guide an investigator to understand the
subject’s determination and potential willingness to mount an attack.
Knowledge of a subject’s motives may
help an investigator separate the subject’s
feelings about a potential target from the
subject’s intent to attack the target.
Knowledge of a subject’s motive(s) may
also aid an investigator to determine which
target(s) may be at risk from a potential
What has the subject communicated about
his or her intentions to anyone (target, law
enforcement, family, friends, colleagues, associates, diary/journal)? Many assume that
the subjects who pose the greatest threats are
those who send or write direct threats to their
targets or to law enforcement organizations. It is
important to investigate all such threats, both
because some persons send or write threats in
order to be stopped from committing violent
acts and because a threat may be a violation of
the law.
Although some attackers make threats, many
do not. ECSP and SSI data reveal, however, that
many attackers let someone know about their
intentions or wrote their intentions in a diary or
journal before they engaged in lethal or nearlethal conduct.
Relevant questions may include the following: Has the subject let anyone know his or her
intentions? Has the subject kept a journal? Has
the subject communicated to family members,
friends, coworkers, help-givers, and/or others
suggestions that he or she has been contemplating mounting an attack? Both the ECSP and the
SSI were conducted before use of social media
became widespread. Scrutiny of a subject’s social media communications or postings may
provide important information about the subject’s thinking, planning, intentions, and behaviors. Nonverbal communications can also encompass changes in routine and other overt
behaviors (like the acquisition of a weapon) that
evoke concern from those who know the subject.
Has the subject shown an interest in the following?
• Assassins or assassination
• Weapons (to include recent acquisition)
• Militant/radical/extremist ideas or groups
and/or incidents of terrorism
• Murder(s)/mass murder(ers)/workplace violence/stalking incidents
Case experience suggests that many attackers
think about an attack in the months and even
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
years before they formulate plans for such an
attack. These interests may include gathering
information about other attacks, attempting to
communicate with past attackers, listening to or
watching media presentations about prior attacks. For some subjects, these inquiries are
ways of exploring “what if” questions, such as
“What will happen to me?” For others, it is a
way to compare their lives with the lives of
other attackers.
Many attackers and near-attackers demonstrate an interest in weapons. Some go to special
lengths to choose particular weapons, even
when they may have had access to other weapons. Although few subjects of the ESCP were
members of defined radical, militant, or extremist groups, some of the most serious case subjects demonstrated interest in radical, militant,
or extremist groups or ideas before they attacked or attempted to attack. These subjects
appeared to be “fringe of fringe,” persons who
were interested in extreme ideas and who were
not regular group members. Investigators
should be alert to the possibility that a subject
may have a history of holding extreme ideas
that may rationalize or justify an attack. A subject may hold such ideas without being, or having been, a formal member of a group that
propounds these ideas. Last, some subjects develop a general interest in targeted violence,
such as murder, mass murder, workplace violence, or stalking or interest in persons who
have engaged in these crimes.
Is there evidence that the subject has engaged
in attack-related behaviors? Attack-related behaviors include the following:
• Attack idea/plan
• Making efforts to acquire or practice with
• Casing possible sites for an attack
• Rehearsal behavior
• Any other activities designed to help develop capacity for an attack
Behaviors that move a subject further down a
path toward an attack are considered attackrelated behaviors. Attacks are rarely spontaneous or impulsive events. Attacks are generally
preceded by at least some planning and preincident attack-related behavior.
Is there evidence that the subject has engaged in menacing, harassing, and/or stalking-type behavior? Our experience suggests
that many attackers have histories of menacing,
harassing, and/or stalking-type behaviors. Some
of these subjects were charged with crimes because of these behaviors; others were not. Menacing, harassing, and stalking-type behaviors
include instances in which a subject has an
inappropriate interest in another person and
takes action which has the intent or effect of
bothering or frightening the target.
Does the subject have a history of mental
illness involving command hallucinations,
delusional ideas, feelings of persecution, and
so forth, with indications that the subject has
acted on those beliefs? In most cases, mental
illness itself is not a key factor in predicting or
preventing attacks. Knowledge that a subject
is— or is not—mentally ill does not, by itself,
assist in determining whether a subject poses a
risk of violence.
Investigators should, however, be familiar
with the symptoms and behaviors of persons
with mental illness for two reasons: a) to understand and to manage cases of mentally ill
persons who come to attention who do not pose
a threat and who need diversion into mental
health care systems, and b) to identify and to
assess correctly the few mentally ill persons
who may pose a threat.
Some persons with mental illness may pose
threats. For example, a subject who hears voices
commanding him/her to take action, or who
harbors delusional ideas that he or she feels
compel action, and who then acts based on the
voices or delusions may be of concern. A subject who has engaged in behavior, especially
violent behavior, in response to hallucinations
or delusions is likely to be of greater concern
than is another subject with the same mental
illness symptoms who has not acted.
Investigators should gather information both
about the content of a subject’s hallucinations or
delusions and about the subject’s history of
action in response to those symptoms. Has the
subject, for example, traveled, believing that he
or she was compelled to do so by forces beyond
his or her control? Has the subject engaged in
weapon-seeking behavior in response to symptoms of mental illness? Has the subject planned
or carried out violent actions feeling that he or
she was commanded to do so or feeling that he
or she was persecuted and under attack? Has a
subject been committed involuntarily by a court
for mental health treatment after commission of
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
a violent act? In such a case, what were the
circumstances of the violence?
The subject and mental health staff involved
with the case may be sources of information
about the subject’s behavior. But investigators
should not automatically assume that mental
health professionals know about a subject’s activities outside of the mental health setting or
about the subject’s motives and intentions. In a
case in which a mentally ill subject appears to
have taken action in response to mental illness
symptoms, an investigator should attempt to
develop information about the subject’s behaviors, in addition to information from mental
health professionals.
How organized is the subject? Does the
subject have the ability to plan and execute a
violent action? Investigators should ask the
following questions: How capable is the subject
of formulating and carrying out a plan to attack?
At his or her usual level of functioning, what are
the subject’s capabilities?
Is there evidence that the subject is experiencing feelings of hopelessness, desperation, or despair? Has the subject experienced
a recent loss or loss of status? Is the subject
now, or has the subject ever been, suicidal? A
person who feels hopeless and/or desperate
should be viewed with concern. If a desperate or
despairing subject sees an attack as a “way out,”
he or she may not be deterred by usual physical
protective measures. A subject who feels desperate (“at the end of my rope”) may be more
determined to attack.
Major life losses and traumas lead many subjects to experience desperation or despair. Such
losses may include the ending of a key relationship, losing a job, failing in an activity of importance to the subject, and other life changes
that were distressing and/or humiliating for the
subject. Investigators should be alert for painful
recent life experiences which may have “triggered” the subject. For a few subjects, preparing
to mount an attack focuses their attention and
emotion. These subjects may come to believe
that an attack will bring an end to their pain, or
will somehow resolve their problems.
A history of having been suicidal is an important risk factor for an attack. A subject who wants
to die, or who is prepared to die, may not be
deterred by usual protective measures. (Paradoxically, and of great concern, physical protective
measures may become a “magnet” for a subject
who is suicidal and who wishes to be killed.) A
subject who has been suicidal in the past and has
considered— or tried—to kill himself/herself may
be willing to and face the consequences of being
killed or injured in the attack. Consequently, an
investigator should make efforts to learn about a
subject’s history of being suicidal. A subject who
appears to be currently suicidal should be assessed
with particular care.
Is what the subject says consistent with his
or her actions? Corroboration is key to this
process. Although the subject should be one
source of information, it is a mistake to rely
solely or primarily on a subject’s statements
about his or her motives, thinking, and activities. A subject may give partial, incomplete, or
inaccurate information. It is prudent to compare
the information developed with the subject’s
statements. The subject’s explanation may be a
cover for activities that warrant attention and
Does the subject see violence as acceptable,
desirable, or the only way to solve problems?
Sometimes, the setting surrounding the subject
explicitly or implicitly tends to support or endorse violence as a way to resolve problems or
What concerns do those who know the
subject have about the subject’s behavior?
Subjects who attacked often communicated their
intentions to family, friends, colleagues, and others and made these persons uneasy. Subjects who
embark on such a path often behave in ways that
evoke concern in people who know them.
What factors in the subject’s life and/or
environment could change and thereby increase the subject’s risk of attacking? What
factors could change and thereby decrease
the risk posed? A threat assessment investigation is designed to answer two fundamental
questions: (a) Does the subject currently pose a
threat? (b) Are there foreseeable circumstances
under which the subject might pose a threat?
The assessment of risk that a subject poses
should be a dynamic process. New information
about the subject’s behaviors and situation may
lead one to modify his or her assessment of the
risk the subject poses. An investigator should
pay attention to factors in the subject’s life or
environment that might change in the foreseeable future and, thereby, might increase or decrease the risk that the subject poses.
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
Advantages of Threat Assessment and a
Multidisciplinary Process
The findings of the ECSP and the SSI have
been presented several hundred times to law
enforcement professionals. The principles of
threat assessment, as outlined in these studies,
have served as the basis for targeted violence
prevention work by law enforcement organizations, public and judiciary officials’ protection
services, school, college and university threat
assessment teams, and private sector consultants who work with corporations and high net
worth individuals.
Future Challenges and Opportunities
Threat assessment is in its third decade of
development as an emerging discipline. The
movement toward threat assessment as a means
of prevention has occurred, in part, because of
the increased numbers of targeted attacks at
schools and universities, workplaces, houses of
worship and other places where people gather.
It also has been developed in response to increased expectations that those responsible for
prevention develop better ways to do so.
The experiences and efforts of law enforcement professionals, researchers, psychologists
and other practitioners have added greatly to our
understanding of the ideas, motives, goals, communications, and behaviors of those who engage in such violence. They have led us to think
more clearly about how to identify, assess and
manage situations of potential targeted violence.
In reviewing the recent, rich literature about
the development of threat assessment (see
Meloy & Hoffman, 2014), we still need to consider the following questions to further develop
the practice of threat assessment and threat
How can we learn more about the role and
impact of social media in facilitating targeted violence attacks? How might and
should social media be incorporated into
threat assessment and management?
What are the most effective ways of dissuading a person of concern from mounting an attack?
How can we learn more about what kind of
management techniques are effective in
which situations? In managing a case of
concern, how is an effective balance struck
between providing support to a person and
ensuring control of him in his ongoing
Why do some persons with direct knowledge about a possible attack not report that
information? Are there more effective
ways to encourage them to do so? What
roles, if any, might some bystanders play
in the ongoing management of a person of
Does threat assessment necessarily entail
specialized units within the law enforcement community? Should threat assessment training be integrated into initial
and/or specialized police/criminal investigator training programs?
Under what circumstances and in what situations should threat assessments be conducted by teams rather than by individuals? Is there a single best way to conduct a
threat assessment?
How can we conduct operational research
that continues to incorporate the perspective of the attacker into our efforts to develop better prevention strategies?
Does a threat assessment program aid an
organization in discharging a duty to protect? What are the essential features of
such a program that help it to withstand
legal scrutiny?
Information from recent mass shootings and
other targeted violence attacks such as those in
Newtown, Connecticut; Aurora, Colorado; and
Roseburg, Oregon are consistent with the findings of both the ECSP and the SSI. This suggests that the threat assessment approach outlined in this article continues to be operationally
useful to those engaged in efforts to prevent
such attacks.
Borum, R., Fein, R., Vossekuil, B., & Berglund, J.
(1999). Threat assessment: Defining an approach
for evaluating risk of targeted violence. Behavioral
Sciences & the Law, 17, 323–337. http://dx.doi
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
Fein, R. A., & Vossekuil, B. (1998). Preventing attacks on
public figures and public officials: A Secret Service
perspective. In J. R. Meloy (Ed.), The psychology of
stalking: Clinical and forensic perspectives (pp.
175–194). San Diego, CA: Academic Press. http://
Fein, R. A., & Vossekuil, B. (1998). Protective intelligence and threat assessment investigations: A
guide for state and local law enforcement officials.
NCJ 170612. Washington, DC: U.S. Department
of Justice, National Institute of Justice.
Fein, R. A., & Vossekuil, B. (1999). Assassination in
the United States: An operational study of recent
assassins, attackers, and near-lethal approachers.
Journal of Forensic Sciences, 44, 321–333. http://
Fein, R. A., Vossekuil, B., & Holden, G. (1995).
Threat assessment: An approach to prevent targeted violence. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice.
Fein, R., Vossekuil, B., Pollack, W., Borum, R.,
Modzeleski, W., & Reddy, M. (2002). Threat assessment in schools: A guide to managing threatening situations and to creating safe school climates. Washington, DC: U.S. Secret Service and
U.S. Department of Education.
Meloy, J. R., & Hoffman, J. (2014). International
handbook of threat assessment. New York, NY:
Oxford University Press.
Vossekuil, B., Fein, R., Reddy, M., Borum, R., &
Modzeleski, W. (2002). The final report and
findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the prevention of school attacks in the
United States. Washington, DC: U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education.
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.

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