Threat Assessment: An Approach To Prevent Targeted Violence



Series: NIJ Research in Action

Published: September 1995

14 pages

29,637 bytes

NCJ 155000


By Robert A. Fein, Ph.D., Bryan Vossekuil, and Gwen

A.      Holden






In the past 5 years, violent crimes involving stalking, workplace violence, and attacks or threatened attacks on public figures and officials have been prominent in the news. Law enforcement and security professionals are turning to prevention as an important component of control strategy.  The Research in Action discusses operational and investigative tools and approaches that can be effectively used to recognize, evaluate, and manage the risks of targeted violence before crimes occur.


Of special interest:


○ Threats of violence arise from feelings or ideas that range from the mean-spirited to the messianic. Sometimes a threat is backed by the will and capacity to do harm; at other times, a voiced threat may amount to nothing but emotional “venting.” However, violent acts can be committed when no prior threat has been uttered. For law enforcement and security officers, recognizing the difference between “making” and “posing” a threat is crucially important.


○ Perpetrators of violence often have a traceable history of problems, conflicts, disputes, and failures. Violent behavoir may be triggered by these individuals’ perception that it provides a means to rectify or avenge an injustice or wrongdoing. Targeted violence can be premeditated or opportunistic when a situation arises that facilitates or permits the violence or does not prevent it from occurring.


○ The first component of threat assessment case management involves developing a plan that moves the subject away from regarding violence as a viable option.


○ Information about a subject’s coping ability during periods of great stress, including any contemplated or attempted or violence against others or self, is of special interest in a threat assessment investigation. Other behavioral data—such as obsessive or undue interest in a potential target, or efforts made to secure or practice with weapons—also is helpful.


○ Interviews of subjects should be considered as part of the investigation’s overall strategy. However, sometimes an interview may stimulate the interest, and may even increase the desperation or anxiety level, of a subject and thus could precipitate violence when it may not have occurred otherwise.


○ The target in a threat assessment case needs to be evaluated in terms of vulnerability to attack, job and personal lifestyle, fear of the subject, and degree of sophistication with regard to the need for caution.


○ Documentation of data and consultation with experts are key aspects in implementing a case management strategy.


○ A case can be considered for closing when the subject is deemed to no longer be a threat. Questions should be asked regarding what changed circumstances could trigger the subject to move toward violent behavior.



About the authors


Robert A. Fein, Ph.D., a Visiting Fellow at the National Institute of Justice, is a Consultant Psychologist for the U.S. Secret Service; Bryan Vossekuil is Assistant Special Agent in Charge, Intelligence Division, U.S. Secret Service; and Gwen A. Holden serves as Executive Vice President of the National Criminal Justice Association.