Barriers to Assessing Threats of Violence

The FBI issued a report in 2015 titled “Making Prevention a Reality: Identifying, Assessing, and Managing the Threat of Targeted Attacks”. The targeted attacks referred to in the report were related to violence that is planned, focused, and unemotional. This is in contrast to violence that is impulsive, unplanned, and reacting to a perceived threat; otherwise known as affective violence.

Threat assessment is a fact-based process focusing on the behaviors and thinking of the subject to determine if they are exhibiting attack related behaviors towards one or more victims. Threat management focuses on intervention and strategies to stop or mitigate an act of violence. This process does not work with affective violence, especially because it is reactive and unplanned. However, security controls, crisis intervention protocols, and increased awareness may mitigate some affective violence.

There are multiple steps in the process of threat assessment management to identify targeted violence. A critical step in that process is to ensure problematic behaviors are not missed or ignored because of barriers. This may be  intended and unintended. These barriers can inhibit a complete and objective assessment of the threat. Mary Ellen O’Toole, PhD and previously with the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, has identified four barriers of concern:

  1. Normalizing Behavior – This involves finding a normal explanation for the problematic behavior, e.g. “that’s just Bob being Bob”.
  2. Rationalization Behavior – Such rationalization basically excuses the problematic behavior by minimizing it, e.g. “this could hurt his career and his family”.
  3. Ignoring Behavior – Pretending the behavior did not occur and assuming it is someone else’s responsibility. Some refer to this as the “Bystander Effect”.
  4. Icon Intimidation – Because of the subject’s position or standing the organization or the community, they could not be capable of dangerous behavior. The case of Jerry Sandusky, former college football coach and convicted child sexual abuser is a great example of this.

I would add Cultural Indifference to the list. The culture in some organizations may not foster an environment where employees feel empowered to come forward with their concerns. Ironically, all of these barriers inhibit identifying other “insider threats” such as embezzlement, information theft, business misconduct, sexual harassment, etc.

Increased awareness of the threat assessment management process can help to overcome these barriers. Training, especially of managers and threat management teams, can enhance an environment that fosters early reporting of problematic behaviors with an objective assessment of those behaviors. Organizational leaders must establish a positive “tone at the top”. This cultivates an environment of transparency and care which will mitigate the risk of violence in the workplace.


Jim Dale is the owner and principal of Seven Citadels Consulting with more than 35 years of security and risk experience in both the private and public sectors. Dale is the former Chief Security Officer (CSO) for three Fortune 500 companies. He is a Certified Threat Manager ™ (CTM) and board certified in security management as a Certified Protection Professional (CPP). Dale is a member of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals (ATAP) and the International Association of Professional Security Consultants (IAPSC). He is also a member of The International Association for Healthcare Security and Safety and ASIS International. Dale was a career officer, commander, and special agent with the U.S. Air Force and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI).