ATAP TMC 2023 RECAP
Our Clinical Security Solutions team once again attended the annual Threat Management Conference in Anaheim, California. The TMC, sponsored by the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals (ATAP) is a yearly gathering of multi-disciplinary professionals working in the field of Behavioral Threat Assessment and Management. Our team attended presentations from leading researchers and practitioners in the field of Behavioral Threat Assessment and Management. We also heard from some of the leading voices in employment law and learned much about the rapidly changing legal landscape facing employers today. In this edition of Left of Boom, we will summarize some of the key insights offered by these experts.
Changing Threat Landscape
The threat landscape continues to evolve as we approach what will surely be a contentious election cycle. Experts are seeing an increase in threatening language both online and in written communication and much of this activity is driven by political rhetoric. Experts have also noted an increase in extremist language from an ever-widening range of domestic and transnational sources. Regarding online communications such as social media, the notion of perceived anonymity leads to increased disinhibition and lowered social constraints on behavior. Online commentary is oftentimes more violent, more vehement, and more easily spread and amplified than other modes of communication.
What in the past may have been political disputes over policy has become highly personal. In many cases, it is not enough to simply disagree over political positions. It has now become even more accepted to not only hate a person due to political differences but to engage in rhetoric that serves to dehumanize political opposition.
We have also seen the expansion of what is considered a public official. Once mundane and routine local governmental bodies such as school boards, regional library boards, or local planning commissions have now become political flashpoints, and officials in these positions have become targets for hostile political rhetoric. Individual public employees who worked in relative obscurity such as librarians are now targeted with volatile political speech. This creates a volatile situation and a dangerous rhetorical stew that could serve as a breeding ground for self-radicalized lone actors seeking violent action. The increase of such rhetoric has also set a higher threshold for the reporting of online threats creating a challenge for threat assessment professionals since early notification and early intervention is the key to developing countermeasures and intervention strategies.
Organizations have also been targeted due to their stance on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) matters and their Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) posture. Organizations would be well served to remain aware of any activist groups challenging such activity. One must only look at the Bud Light advertising debacle and the cost incurred by that organization to understand the potential for disruption by such activist targeting.
The nature of online activity has also changed. Experts have now seen online platforms used for a variety of purposes, individuals may use such platforms to highlight grievances or as a call to action for others. We have also seen some individuals use online platforms to celebrate acts of violence and in rare cases to portray acts of violence in real time. The shooter in the 2019 New Zealand mosque mass shootings livestreamed his attack on Facebook and the 2015 murders of a local TV reporter and cameraman were also livestreamed. Now more than ever assessment professionals must review online and social media activity for any signs of potential leakage the foretelling of intent to commit violence or other information relevant to our assessment.
Social media influencers also play a large role in the increasing radicalization and intensification of online activity related to threats. In 2008, in a prescient research paper, threat assessment pioneers Calhoun and Weston categorized such individuals as “Crusaders” defining them as “small groups of influencers who foster a broader sense of group action, incite others, and rationalize aggression in the name of an ideological or moral position. “
Impact of COVID-19
It appears likely that social scientists will be studying the impact of COVID-19 for many years. Educational experts have already documented deficits in students resulting from lockdowns and the reliance on online education. Especially for children in critical developmental ages, school not only serves as a means for traditional education but is a key formative opportunity to learn critical social skills. Social scientists are only now beginning to assess the level of impaired social skills the next generation may have. A recent study by the Brookings Institute examined the impact of COVID-19 on mental health for a variety of demographics. The study shows that the impact of the pandemic led to huge increases in self-reported depression and anxiety among all groups but was highly impactful to groups already considered disadvantaged before the pandemic. We do not yet know the impact of this increase in mental health stressors, however, as threat assessors, we can only assume this will be a factor in our work going forward.
Several prior editions of our newsletter (February 2023 and July 2023) have reported on U.S. Supreme Court activity related to First Amendment issues and threat assessment.
The latest case, Counterman v. Colorado resolved a long-standing jurisdictional discrepancy and established a nationwide standard for prosecution of online threats. The Court adopted what is known as the “Recklessness Standard” stating that to successfully prosecute a “True Threat” it must be shown that the person making the threat did so with the knowledge that the communication was unwanted and likely to cause distress to the other party.
Legal scholars opined that this may not be the last time the Court looks at First Amendment issues, especially regarding threats or the language of criminal incitement. As several criminal cases relating to the January 6th assault on the US Capitol move through the court system it is likely that some of those defendants may appeal challenging what is considered criminal incitement and what is considered political rhetoric protected by the First Amendment. Stay tuned.
What does this mean for organizations?
Do you have a policy or code of conduct that defines expectations regarding appropriate and acceptable communication within the workplace?
Do you have the ability to securely and consistently monitor the public-facing social media of individuals who are the subject of your threat assessment investigations?
Do you have the ability to detect, monitor, and mitigate the threat to your organization posed by activist groups?
Organizations must follow recognized best practices and threat assessment and management protocols. Threat assessment is a dynamic process, threat management teams should continually reassess—no case should ever be considered ‘one and done’ in the face of evolving facts or fresh concerns.
Collaboration is key. Workplace violence prevention is a team sport. Security, HR, Legal, and line management staff should remain in close coordination.
Threat assessment and management is a dynamic, changeable process as new information becomes available. Organizations must maintain vigilance and implement interventions that are proportionate to the threat and sustainable over time.
The legal landscape is rapidly changing. Practitioners of Behavioral Threat Assessment and Management MUST be mindful of current case law and continually reassess procedures and protocols.