He’s ranked as a Major, and serves as Deputy Chief of Police and Director of Threat Management Services at Virginia Tech University. He was hired after the awful situation when a shooter took the lives of 32 people, mostly students, before taking his own life. This is truly the dark side of what we deal with in our professions, but Virginia Tech made a bold move and hired one of the best persons in the world to make sure they avoid anything similar in the future — Gene Deisinger.
Gene: I was the Deputy Chief of Police and managed threat management services at Iowa State University when Virginia Tech first contacted me for assistance. I had been teaching threat assessment for the past 15 years, in fact I go to teach in Australia later this summer. When Virginia Tech contacted me, I was flattered to be asked to join their team and we quickly came to an agreement.
Gary: Talk about sending a message. Hiring you was a real message to the public that they weren’t messing around. What do you think is the minimum level of training to do what you do?
Gene: I would say a decade of training and experience in threat assessment.
Gary: So what is your process in threat assessment?
Gene: We do a full contextual analysis which includes analyzing the subject of concern (personality, background, behavior, etc.), vulnerability of the target, environmental conditions, and precipitating events that can trigger an escalation of violence. We gather relevant information from a variety of sources (e.g., interviewing the subject of concern, as well as other employees or students, and review public records including the internet, etc.). We then implement a plan to mitigate risks in each of the domains of analysis, and then do ongoing monitoring and re-evaluation, and go back and start it over. It is actually a complex process with a lot of moving parts.
Gary: Whoa, I always thought of threat assessment as looking at the Menninger Triad, state of mind and…?
Gene: I think that is the mistake most people make. They consider threat assessment to be the same as forensic work of assessing individuals and dangerousness, and that is part of it, but the more important work is designing a full system and feedback loops for on-going threat assessment and management. Sometimes you do not even see the individual to assess them for the situation.
Gary: You mean indirect assessment?
Gene: If you are talking a dangerous assessment where you are looking at the current state of mental health and so forth, you may want to see the individual, but an overall threat assessment would involve assessing is this person going to react to the situation, environment and, cues from others and a whole bunch of dimensions that you don’t actually need to see the individual to assess. You may find it more useful to talk to key people in the person’s life, look at previous mental health concerns, level of education, colleagues, most recent action, any plans or fantasies of plans.
Gary: So what you are saying is that most of us see threat assessment as looking at the individual who might take an action, and you see it as much more global and contextual.
Gene: Absolutely. In addition to the characteristics of an individual that contribute to the risk, it may also come down to policies or poor management causing anger, or a political decision that angers radical groups in a country, or even a controversial medical treatment being performed and the environment being right for an action by an actor unknown at the time, such as in abortion clinics in the 70’s and 80’s. Threat assessment is much larger than just assessing an individual’s dangerousness.
Gary: Okay, where do you get the training for this?
Gene: Marisa Reddy Randazzo and I have a group called SIGMA Threat Management Associates <http://www.SigmaTMA.com>). We do training and consultation for educational institution, private corporations, governmental entities, mental health professionals and individuals. But there are many other excellent practitioners such as Reid Meloy and Kris Mohandie who have conducted research and published broadly. Start with primers from the Secret Service like the Exceptional Cases Study or Safe Schools projects. Turner and Gellis’ book is a great reference. Cawood and Corcoran have a great book that covers the process nicely. All these are references to know where you are going with this topic and begin to really understand threat assessments. We have many good resources listed on our website.
Gary: Many people don’t think of the Secret Service as doing much more than protecting the president.
Gene: They are a leader in the threat assessment field because they are analyzing and managing threats all the time. They protect persons who are high profile targets, and guns and binoculars are not enough to protect someone people want to kill. Threat assessment grew out of our desire to keep people safe and make ways to see things we were blind to with just binoculars. It’s a relatively newer part of our science and it is growing exponentially each year.
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Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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