WHAT IS THREAT ASSESSMENT?
Establishing a common lexicon is important for building a community of practice and a measurable and replicable program. Threat assessment and management are two functions of a systematic process to evaluate concerning behavioral and thought patterns and determine the context, circumstances, and capability surrounding potential threats. Formalizing threat assessment and management programs can help identify, gather, assess, and respond to risks of violence and extremism. Threat assessments allow cities to move from offender profiling to an evidence-based approach that considers the totality of circumstances. For example, the September 11 attacks (9/11) and Sandy Hook School Shooting both had observable criminal activity or behavioral indicators that, if identified, reported, and acted on appropriately, could have prevented the attacks.
Threat assessments aim to prove the credibility, seriousness, and probability of a potential threat by using facts systematically. These assessments blend information collection and analysis with published research and practitioner experience. They also focus on a person’s patterns of behavior and thinking to determine whether, and to what extent, a person of concern is moving toward an attack. Behavioral indicators like leakage, novel aggression, and fixation can indicate that a person is on the pathway to violence. The assessment also considers the context and circumstances – and the interactions between the person of concern, potential targets, and environmental/situational factors – that may influence risk. The companion practice succeeding threat assessment is threat management.
Threat management involves continuously evaluating, managing, and mitigating the risk of harm after identifying a person of concern. Through a coordinated plan of interventions based on current information, threat management is designed to reduce the risk of violence at that time. It all depends on what life stressors (e.g., home and family life, religion or ideology, finances, and workplaces) the person is feeling pressure from and trying to reduce that stress and the associated risk.
The public health approach is a science-based technique that relies on cooperation between diverse disciplines such as health, social services, law enforcement, and correctional services to address underlying factors to increase a person’s likelihood of committing an act of violence:
Primary prevention – approaches aimed at preventing violence before it occurs, such as job programs or bystander awareness;
Secondary prevention – approaches that focus on the more immediate responses to violence, such as de-radicalization programs or support groups; and
Tertiary prevention – approaches that focus on long-term care in the wake of violence, such as rehabilitation and reintegration, and attempts to lessen trauma or reduce the long-term disability associated with violence.
The following is an example of threat assessment and management in action:
A 2018 federal terrorism investigation involving a 22-year-old male subject with social media posts in support of ISIS, used a local Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) in parallel with the investigation to assess the subject’s mental health needs based on a suspected, unidentified mental disorder. The local [Joint Terrorism Task Force] used mental health professionals and other community stakeholders, in conjunction with the CIT and [FBI’s Behavioral Threat Assessment Center], to conduct a threat assessment and implement a long-term threat mitigation plan that ensured psychiatric treatment and medication compliance were mandated as conditions of the subject’s three-year supervised release.
Approaches vary by context. In addition, the feasibility of adopting or expanding threat assessment and management programs rests on the resources and priorities of the city and partner organizations. Based on the 61 organizations in the study sample, nine notable practices emerged.
Establishing a multidisciplinary team – A multidisciplinary team is central to the public health approach and will enable a well-rounded perspective and effective risk-mitigation strategy development and implementation. Threat assessment and management teams are strengthened through the ability to draw upon multiple perspectives and resources. Most (68.3%, n=43) survey respondents belong to multidisciplinary teams. Of those with only one discipline, 45% (n=9) are law enforcement. While law enforcement serves as a key partner in the threat assessment and management process, consider including mental health, social services, and legal professionals.
Adopting a holistic view – A holistic view enables threat assessment and management teams to consider risk factors, situations, environments, and contexts when evaluating the threat level. By understanding the person’s baseline, cities can distinguish deviations from the baseline, identify escalation, and more accurately determine a management and intervention plan best suited to the person.
Developing and adopting a shared language – Cities should consider developing and adopting a language that clearly describes the program goals, minimizes fear and bias, and educates the public on how to utilize its services to foster relationships on transparency and stewardship. When possible, use language and communication mediums (e.g., radio, television, print, and social media) most frequently used in that community to increase understanding and reach.
Performing threat management – Threat assessment achieves little if action is not taken to manage the threat once it is identified. Survey respondents indicated the average number of threats reported annually ranges from 1 to over 500, and the number of cases actively investigated and assessed also ranges widely depending on imminence. Cities should consider following their threat assessments with long-term threat management to reduce the risk of violence from the person of concern. While this practice requires a coordinated plan, continuous monitoring, and implementation of direct or indirect interventions, it is specifically designed to reduce the risk of violence in the given context.
Upholding privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties – The protection of privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties is paramount in the threat assessment space, given that there is not always a nexus to a crime. Safeguarding related protected and sensitive information, especially for juveniles, should be discussed early in team development, ideally with a legal professional.
Applying and layering different types of prevention and intervention strategies – No single method can address and reduce violence alone. Primary prevention strategies like legislation, awareness campaigns, and community training, and secondary prevention strategies like stable housing, mental health counseling, and protective orders are favored globally. However, adding tertiary prevention strategies like victim services, support groups, and restorative justice programs can garner valuable results. Applying layered prevention strategies allows cities to create cascading safety nets and points of intervention for persons of concern before violence occurs. Beyond prevention efforts, local community actions can be particularly effective in bringing about change. Cities should consider what data and resources are needed to inform each strategy and to tailor interventions to fit the needs of the person and community.
Measuring success through data – Measuring the success of targeted violence and terrorism prevention is a challenge. Community surveys where threat assessments are conducted can demonstrate changes in risk level for a person following threat mitigation. Keeping metrics on segments of cases displays a better picture of how a threat assessment and management team’s mitigation techniques and methods impact a situation versus comparing before and after a case. For example, if a person comes to the attention of a team as low risk, soon escalates to high and over time is reduced back to low, a before and after will not show change. However, examining that person’s path over several identified case segments would highlight the team’s work. Finally, tracking the number of reports, tips, and referrals can show the need in a community.
Establishing mechanisms to enhance information sharing – Sharing timely and accurate information is critical to developing threat assessment and management plans. Survey respondents indicated information sharing as a “greatest strength” but also a significant limitation in threat assessment activities. Different city agencies and departments may hold information that can help provide a holistic view of the subject of concern and what resources and services they may require. Health records can illustrate a mental illness diagnosis, and law enforcement records can describe criminal history. However, these records are protected information and can be shared only under certain conditions. Cities may consider legislation to provide threat assessment and management teams with the authority to bypass legal barriers to sharing information.
Lowering the barriers to reporting – People may not be inclined to report potential threats for various reasons. Those barriers may be: emotional, especially if the person of concern is a loved one; physical, lacking access to a responsible party or system where they can safely and reliably report; or due to a lack of knowledge about available resources. These barriers can be lowered by training the public on reporting methods and threat assessment structures and processes, like the way the “See Something, Say Something” campaign increased public awareness. Socializing threat assessment and management efforts to bring support and resources to those that may not otherwise have access to them can empower community members to uplift those in need.
Cities remain attractive targets for targeted violence and terrorism, considering their population density, monuments of significance, and critical infrastructure. These threats must be prevented and mitigated by evidence-based approaches and strategies that further the city’s homeland security mission and the safety of the public. Threat assessment and management have long served as an effective method of identifying, gathering, assessing, prioritizing, and responding to various threats.
This article explored the structures, methodologies, and notable practices across different countries to assist cities in developing or enhancing their threat assessment and management program. Through a systematic analysis, one thing is clear – to effectively prevent and mitigate threats, cities must utilize multidisciplinary stakeholders. Bringing these stakeholders together moves professionals closer to having a shared language, which decreases the chances of miscommunication and facilitates collaboration.
No one strategy can prevent violence either. The most successful threat assessment and management programs require a multi-level intervention at the individual, community, and societal levels through the three prevention strategies. To provide these multi-level interventions, cities must develop a strategy to engage the public through education, awareness, and public reporting. This work can be accomplished by building trust with communities and relationships across city government grounded in protecting privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties principles.
Carl Amritt serves as the program manager for the Threat Assessment Center at the Fusion Center within the District of Columbia Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (DC HSEMA). In this role, he manages a multidisciplinary threat assessment and management team committed to preventing targeted violence to enhance and community safety and well-being. Before joining DC HSEMA, he served as a senior policy analyst at the National Governors Association, the assistant director of global safety at American University, and held various roles in American University’s Police Department.
Eliot Bradshaw serves as the collection analyst for the Threat Assessment Center at the Fusion Center within the District of Columbia Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (DC HSEMA). In this role, she monitors open-source information for threats to schools in the District of Columbia and publishes a quarterly bulletin sharing threat information and resources with partners. She also works as a trial consultant, using open-source information to help clients form the best possible jury for their desired outcome.
Alyssa Schulenberg formerly served as an investigative analyst assisting in the creation of the Threat Assessment Center at the Fusion Center within the District of Columbia Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (DC HSEMA). In this role, she delivered a targeted violence and terrorism prevention training she developed and worked to adapt it for international audiences. Before joining DC HSEMA as part of a Department of Homeland Security Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention grant, she was an investigative support specialist at Louisiana State Analytical and Fusion Exchange and served as a mobile operations coordinator for Louisiana State University’s (LSU) National Center for Biomedical Research and Training/Academy of Counter-Terrorist Education.