Prone to Violence


Ben Keller here. As I write this, I’m sitting at my desk in downtown Manhattan, staring at snow, and thinking about violence.

To be clear, that’s my job.  I’ve written many times about how my career involves investigations and security consulting, and I’m frequently called upon to assess potential security risks and make recommendations to mitigate the risk.  When it comes to human behavior, however, assessing risk can be tantamount to predicting the future, which is of course elusive.  Nonetheless, the companies I support have a responsibility to provide a safe and secure workplace, and we must respond to concerns that surface.

I recently traveled to the West Coast to respond to one of these circumstances.  It was a familiar story.  An employee was experiencing an abusive situation at home, and now that situation was threatening to impact the office.  Previously, there was no restricted access to the office, and anyone bent on doing harm could do so unimpeded.  I worked with the office leadership, the landlord, technicians, security officers and local police, and we came up with a plan to make the site more secure.

In some of these circumstances, we have to ask ourselves an important question:  how likely is a certain person to commit violence?  How do we measure how prone someone is to harming others?  As I mentioned earlier, it’s a very difficult question to answer.  In fact, there have been dozens of scholarly works examining this very issue.  Delving into the motivations of criminal behavior is a subject that fascinates us, and is featured in entertainment from Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs to some episodes of the more recent Black Mirror.  My piece of this world is not so lofty as unraveling the thoughts of a serial killer, but I do use some of the same principles in assessing the likelihood of an employees tendancy toward hurting others.

I’ll share some of those principles here, with a caveat.  This is not a comprehensive list, and proper interpretation and context are important components when assessing risk.  I would caution against using these principles to evaluate a situation on your own.  If you are concerned about a person in your life, please contact law enforcement or the appropriate security personnel.  That said, to offer some illumination on the process, these are some of the things we evaluate:

  • Trajectory:  If there was any sort of outburst or assault, was it a single event, or is there a series of escalating behaviors?
  • History:  Does the person have a history of outbursts?  Was he/she a victim of violence or abuse in the past?
  • Mental Health:  Is there a history of mental challenges?  Does the person claim to have some sort of unique special knowledge or status?
  • Weapons:  Does the person have access to firearms or other weapons?  Are they known to carry weapons regularly?
  • Employment:  Is the person gainfully employed?  Has there been a recent (or pending) termination?
  • Personal Life:  Have there been any recent traumas or disruption?  Divorce, catastrophic medical issue, etc.?
  • Support Network:  Does the person have a supportive family or social network?  Or are they typically a “loner” without support?

We use a tool that was created with a forensic psychiatrist and in conjunction with the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit.  We attach a score to questions based on these and other factors to help evaluate the level of risk.  Then, based on risk, we take different levels of response.  Those response vary widely, from continuing to monitor the situation to a full intervention.  Naturally, each situation is different and requires its own unique response, but we find the best solution to keep the workplace safe.

We read a lot about violence today.  We live in a dangerous world, and frankly, I don’t see that changing any time soon.  But my hope is that with all of us being aware of our surroundings, recognizing risk factors, and taking action early, we can prevent violence before it occurs.

2 thoughts on “Prone to Violence

  1. Great post, Ben, and very informative. It reminds me of the times when citizens would drop by the Homicide Office to tell us that we should arrest so-and-so because they were likely to commit murder. The complainant was often reporting their estranged spouse as the likely killer. We had a few gruff detectives who would impatiently tell them, “This the Homicide Investigation Unit, not the homicide prevention unit,” and send them to the patrol desk to make a report for threats or the appropriate offense. I always wished I could predict future violent behavior in people reliably enough to lock them up before they killed someone, but I never developed that ability.


    1. Thanks Brian. I can hear some of those gruff detectives I’ve known saying the same thing! We can’t predict the future, but we can learn to recognize early warning signs and try to keep a bad situation from getting worse.


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