Some crimes truly do shock our conscience and one such crime occurred in Oakland, California recently when a lone gunman entered a small private Christian University and shot and killed seven people, some of them reportedly execution style. Haunting questions asked after crimes like this are “Why?” “What is the motive?” “Is this behavior that could have been identified as it was brewing?” Most of us cannot understand how someone could kill other people for no obvious reason. But in order to understand the reasons we have to delve into the personality of the offender to understand why they choose to act out in such a coldblooded and violent manner.

There is no profile of a school or university shooter, but as more of these cases occur we can recognize common threads.

It is important to understand that these types of cases almost always involve some degree of preplanning over a period of days, weeks, months and even years. People do not just snap. On the contrary, the individuals responsible generally consider their actions, make a plan, obtain the weapons, practice with the weapons, and then carry out the attack.

Some shooters have been described as calm as they walk around the building shooting at people and killing them. They do not appear to be frenzied or “out of touch” with reality. Some are described as being focused on what they are doing, a behavior I describe as being mission oriented. In my experience with the FBI, the older and more mature the shooter, the better able that person is to plan the crime and the more in control he is of his emotions. One of the shooter’s goals is often “maximum lethality”, to kill as many people as possible in the time he has and in doing so to effect maximum shock to society.

“Injustice Collector”

In my research on school and university shootings, I coined a term “Injustice Collector”. An “Injustice Collector” is someone who sees injustices in many, if not most things that happen to them in life. Injustice Collectors can misperceive the smallest slights and turn them into major events and they can accumulate these injustices for years. Their response to these injustices—real or perceived—can be extremely disproportionate to the original grievance. The distinction among some Injustice Collectors—those who decide to act out violently—is that their reaction to the real or perceived injustices is completely disproportionate to what really happened to them. This tendency of extreme overreaction can often be seen in their history, in prior interactions with others over insignificant issues.

Leakage

Can this type of violent behavior be identified ahead of time? For those of us who work in the field, we believe in most situations the answer is “yes”. One of the most powerful warning signs is leakage. Leakage is the communication of threats or plans to act out violently prior to the event. Leakage can be direct or indirect, written or verbal. In some cases, the leakage has been as indirect as telling another student not to show up the next day at school, because something big was going to happen. It can be as direct as a student posting an on-line video about their intended actions.

The issue is that schools and universities, as well as places of employment will want to take evidence of leakage seriously and train others to recognize and know how to report it, and not disregard it as a joke, or empty threats. Understanding leakage and what to do about it can be particularly important if the leakage is coming from a dangerous Injustice Collector, who sees the world as being out to get him, and he will not tolerate that.

Having a threat assessment team available to evaluate the leakage and assess the personality of the threatener are key components in the area of threat assessment for schools, universities and in workplace environments. Zero tolerance for threats does not mean single sanction. In threat assessment, every situation is different, and every person must be treated fairly, and with sensitivity using a threat assessment model that allows for variation in behavior and levels of intervention.

About the Author

Mary Ellen O'Toole, Ph.D.

Mary Ellen O'Toole, Ph.D. was one of the FBI's senior profilers at the Behavioral Analysis Unit and is the author of Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us. 

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