Architects of Fear
The dispatch requesting all available units to respond to a report of an active shooting diverted Captain Joseph Spiess from his daily commute to the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department headquarters downtown.
Spiess instead drove directly to a manufacturing complex on the city’s north side. He didn’t need an address. The 764,000-square-foot factory where the international energy conglomerate ABB produced electrical transformers loomed over an exit ramp on an otherwise unremarkable stretch of Interstate 70 connecting the city to Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and points west.
Spiess was the first commander to arrive. But when he asked the other first responders for the shooter’s location, none of them could tell him.
“We didn’t know the ABB layout,” Spiess says, recalling the morning in January 2010 when four ABB employees were killed, including the shooter, and five others were wounded. “All we knew was that it was occurring in the winding room. And no one knew where that was.”
In the years since, the scene Spiess walked into that morning has helped develop police response to volatile and fluid situations where any delay can spell the difference between life and death.
It is an inexact science, one that has evolved over the past six years in lessons learned from Kalamazoo; Hesston, Kansas; San Bernardino; and Aurora, Colorado; and at Umpqua Community College in Oregon; Virginia Tech; and Sandy Hook Elementary School. These are just a few of the cities, towns and schools on the ever-growing map of sites where multiple-homicide events have occurred. In many ways, experts say, the U.S. response to mass shootings is not unlike the reaction to the abduction of children. For all the drama prompted by the all-too-familiar scripts that have unfolded, private and public research suggests that workplace shootings—like the random kidnapping—remain a rare occurrence.
“The fear of being a victim of a mass shooting at a workplace, public place or school is certainly increasing,” says Mark Zelig, a forensic psychologist in Salt Lake City and a former police officer. “However, mass shootings are actually rare events, and the odds of being a victim of a mass shooting are extremely remote. It is, in fact, one of the most infrequent causes of death.” It’s about as common, Zelig says, as being killed in a shark attack.
The existing data support Zelig and fellow experts who contend the media response inflates the actual threat of a mass shooting. From 2000 to 2013, for example, the FBI categorized only 160 cases—an average of 11.4 per year—as workplace episodes involving a shooter. The workplace shootings over that 14-year period resulted in 486 deaths and 557 injuries. By comparison, 4,679 perished in workplace accidents in 2013 alone, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit website that draws on 1,500 sources to maintain a running total of gun-related injuries and deaths, placed the number of 2015 mass shooting deaths at 330. The toll is folded into the 53,144 reported suicides, homicides and accidental firearm incidents that, according to the website, killed 13,400 people across the country last year and injured another 27,000.
“It’s rare, it’s random and most of the time it is completely unpredictable for the people affected by it,” Lance Ewing, an industry group leader for hospitality and leisure with AIG, told a January webinar on workplace and mass shootings sponsored by the National Alliance for Insurance Research and Education.
Yet random violence resulting in multiple fatalities receives plenty of attention from the news media. One result of the round-the-clock news cycle is a general public that reacts in unison with shock, horror and demands for justice, and with conflicting calls for stricter gun laws or looser gun laws.
The Industry Steps In
The attention focused on workplace violence is apparently one reason insurance corporations, brokers and agents are now entertaining questions from clients seeking liability protection should the unthinkable occur at their place of business. An offer by a southern California agency to analyze options for mass-shooting policies after a terrorist killed 14 at a San Bernardino social services agency in December indicates the industry is just now finding its way into a nascent coverage area.
“There is no average cost of premium,” the BMR Agency of Orange County acknowledged to clients and potential customers on its website. The firm nonetheless promised its agents and brokers would help clients examine options to cover “up to $5 million dollars in liability for companies not found to have taken proper precautions to prevent a shooting rampage.” Policies might also cover “‘on-the-scene’ costs and any counseling or consultation costs following the shooting,” it said.
John Powter, the co-founder of GDP Advisors, says the company’s phones “rang off the hook” when the McKinney, Texas, firm began offering active-shooter policies to its clients in March. “It’s been overwhelming,” Powter says. “There really has been a gap in coverage. It was the missing financial piece. No one has had policies for this. ”
GDP Advisors designed the policies rolled out this spring to address the needs of schools and colleges. The company has since received approval from Texas insurance regulators to extend the coverage to healthcare facilities and municipal government buildings. Beyond providing protection to cover the cost of grief counseling, funeral services, loss of business and other expenses, GDP Advisors promises active-shooter clients that it will have a crisis management team on the scene within 24 hours. Coverage limits range from $1 million to $20 million.
George Mocsary, an assistant law professor at Southern Illinois University, says the upside of active-shooter insurance is in limiting risk should the unthinkable happen. The downside, he says, is that companies misspend investors’ money on an extremely low-risk proposition.
The industry faces plenty of uncertainty as it seeks a foothold in a phenomenon rooted in induced chaos. No agent or broker can predict with any accuracy which students, employees or bystanders will find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time when a gunman opens fire.
“There is not one psychologist who can predict who is capable of killing someone in the workplace, because it happens so rarely,” Zelig says.
The circumstances leading to each instance of mass violence may differ. But the events themselves, Ewing says, tend to track a horrific pattern of “blinding flash, smoke, explosions, dynamic movement, rapid gunfire, forceful commands and rough treatment.”
The scene of a mass shooting can be equally chaotic for law enforcement. The initial wave of St. Louis police officers responding to the 6:34 a.m. broadcast of “shots fired” at the ABB factory on the frigid morning of January 7, 2010, had no way of knowing if any of the vehicles speeding from the parking lot carried the gunman (or gunmen).
Managing to halt the exodus, the cops, as reported by Christine Byers of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, still had “no clear distinction” between victims and attackers. Officers were left with no other option, according to the Post-Dispatch account, but to approach each vehicle “warily” with “guns drawn” to contain the scene and ensure that the perpetrator and his arsenal were not moving to another location.
As their colleagues wasted valuable time in the parking lot, the first responders inside the ABB complex tried to get directions to the shooting site from panicked employees. Once they did, they faced another problem: the route to the winding room where the gunfire had reportedly erupted was accessible only to those issued company key cards. Police, improvising, secured the cards from fleeing workers.
The exact location of the gunman was paramount. But it was not the only unknown.
Had the shooter acted alone? And if he—statistics show a male acts as the perpetrator in 97% of mass shootings—was no longer on the premises, where had he gone? And what danger did he present to family members, acquaintances and the community as a whole?
The data accumulated on mass homicides indicate the shots heard by the first officers on the scene of the ABB shooting were likely the last fired. Ewing, in his presentation, cited a study that determined 69% of mass casualty shootings are over within five minutes. In half of all cases, including the ABB shooting, the violence ends within two minutes.
People Often See It Coming
Gunmen who unleash their rage on factory floors, corporate campuses or corner shops, according to researchers, are almost always targeting an individual or group. The months of investigation and analysis that followed the ABB shooting revealed additional factors common to wholesale violence—one in particular.
“We should have seen it coming,” a co-worker told St. Louis detectives (his observations were contained in the police department’s detailed retrospective).
Colleagues once considered Timothy Hendron an amiable workmate who didn’t shy from the occasional joke. But co-workers told investigators they saw the 51-year-old Hendron’s demeanor spiral after ABB eliminated a shift and, with it, his position as supervisor. Hendron felt further indignation when the company reinstated the shift but did not put him back in charge.
Hendron’s wife told police her husband also felt “ostracized” by a failed attempt to organize ABB workers and from his involvement in a legal challenge to the company pension plan. One co-worker, described as a close friend, told authorities that Hendron “kept to himself and was prone to outbursts of anger.”
It’s unclear whether his colleagues were aware that Hendron purchased two handguns in 2008. But they surely had no knowledge of the shotgun and a rifle he added to his arsenal on January 6, 2010.
The next morning, armed with all four weapons, Hendron entered the factory where he had worked for 30 years. His boss appeared to be the primary target. Hendron also directed his animosity at a co-worker whose corpse he riddled with bullets after firing a fatal shot. The body of a third victim, killed inside his car, was discovered in the parking lot. Hendron squeezed off more than 100 shots, many of the bullets directed toward casual acquaintances and total strangers, before he took his own life.
Nearly two and a half hours elapsed before police, using a robot as a hedge against booby traps and bombs, could begin processing the scene. The preliminary crime site evaluation, it turned out, was the starting point for a long-term forensic analysis of the law enforcement response along with a broader examination of what happened, why it happened and what could be done—if anything—to minimize the possibility of it happening again.
In hindsight, it was clear to co-workers, friends and family members that Tim Hendron and ABB were hurtling toward a collision at the intersection of violence and commerce.
“If you see something, say something” has become a mantra in post-9/11 America. But despite his colleagues’ misgivings, it appears no one said a thing when Hendron began to exhibit outward signs of stress. “It became clear once I became familiar with the circumstances that the shooter sent up a bunch of warning signs,” Spiess says.
Ross Arrowsmith, a senior security advisor for the Workers Compensation Board in Alberta, Canada, says employees must speak up when they observe dramatic or potentially dangerous shifts in a co-worker’s behavior. “If something is bothering you, then it usually means something is wrong,” Arrowsmith says. “Your body is picking up on it. There may be concern that you’re embarrassing yourself or passing along wrongful information. But I think we’ve seen that staying silent doesn’t help.”
Security consultants have a name for employees like Hendron: Mister Uncomfortable. “That uncomfortable guy in every workplace,” Spiess says.
Yet sharing suspicions about Mister Uncomfortable with a supervisor presents its own challenges. “You have an angry guy,” Spiess says. “Maybe he’s prone to drugs or alcohol. But how do you establish if he is actually a threat?”
Employers Can Help…or Hurt
As a forensic psychologist, Zelig has had occasion to work with clients referred to him by businesses responding to safety concerns raised by the client’s co-workers. It has been his experience that “fitness evaluations” can be problematic. Zelig says about half the workers referred to him are stressed but at least half of the stress is caused by a colleague’s suspicion about the worker. In such cases, the profiling is causing the risk rather than averting it. “And that’s what happens when an infrequent event such as workplace violence attaches itself to fear,” Zelig says. “When people are afraid of sharks, everything they see in the water is a shark.”
One upshot of the mass killings that periodically shake the nation has been the emerging role of security firms to assuage the anxiety of employers. Spiess moved into the field following his retirement from the St. Louis police department at the rank of major. With other police retirees and military veterans, he co-founded Blue Line
Technology, a company that specializes in facial recognition. He later established a subsidiary, JLS Consulting, to help businesses develop models to prevent workplace violence.
Before his company analyzed ABB, Spiess says, he assumed companies of all sizes had policies—facilitated by human resources divisions at the corporate stage and management-level discussions at smaller businesses—to address employee mental health issues, especially those with the potential for violence. The former cop was surprised, however, to discover how many businesses either lack a strategy to respond to a problem employee or are operating with an outdated plan that no one in a position of authority knows how to implement.
Arrowsmith, the workers comp security specialist, says he has observed a similar absence of planning. There is “an uptick after a significant event,” he says. “But at the same time not a lot of change is taking place, and that’s unfortunate.”
Spiess acknowledges statistics show workplace violence will eventually touch only a handful of American businesses. But he still recommends companies embrace several proactive internal and external measures to minimize vulnerability.
The external guidelines should start with heightened scrutiny of job candidates, including background checks. Pre-screening is important. Yet as any human resources department can attest, an employee is like a spouse: you don’t really know a person until you live or work with that person.
Spiess says it is important that businesses adopt and strictly adhere to internal policies that address questionable behavior before it spirals out of hand. Companies can initiate the process in below-the-radar conversations between the employee and a supervisor or human resources specialist—discussions that can extend, if necessary, to professional counseling in the manner of the “fitness for duty” evaluations that Zelig conducts in Salt Lake City.
“These conversations are becoming more common, and they are getting people the help they need,” Arrowsmith says. “And that is exactly the approach businesses should be taking. It’s a constructive dialogue.”
To avoid exacerbating the damaged psyche of a delusional or paranoid employee, Spiess advises companies to tread carefully during initial phases of the intervention.
“Businesses should never put a supervisor in a vulnerable position,” the former policeman says.
Should circumstances warrant it, Spiess and Zelig agree, reaching out to an employee’s family is fair game.
“There’s nothing illegal about it,” Spiess says of mandatory counseling. “The key as a company is to have something in writing to provide support if support is offered.”
Should counseling fail, Spiess says, businesses should follow an established, detailed blueprint to address the next phase. “If you have a plan to handle terminations,” he says, “then you have to do it well.”
If the termination of a problem employee appears imminent, Spiess says, company officials should schedule a visit with local law enforcement to outline their apprehension. A company that finds cause for concern, he adds, can protect itself by providing authorities with the worker’s address, make of his vehicle, license plate number, hangouts and even, if it’s known, the route traveled to work.
The precautions—communicated to the rank and file during roll call or beat reports—could result in a patrol officer spotting the ex-employee’s car in the vicinity of his former place of business, a sighting that could head off a violent episode.
Spiess also suggests companies hire a private investigator to conduct a threat assessment and, if need be, track the movements of the former worker in question until the threat of disruption has passed. He advises businesses not to wait until a crisis looms to build a relationship with the local precinct house.
The unfamiliar ABB terrain encountered by the first officers to arrive after Hendron opened fire, Spiess says, demonstrates the importance of providing law enforcement with a building layout that local law enforcement can plug into a database to help dispatchers guide emergency teams responding to mass-shooting scenes.
Yet for all the preventive measures a company should take, thwarting a mass shooting is often reduced to vigilance and good fortune. Ewing tells the story of a store manager who happened to glance into a shopping center parking lot as a driver was removing what appeared to be weapons from the trunk of a vehicle. Acting quickly, the manager ordered an employee to notify the police, directed every occupant of the store to take immediate refuge at the rear of the building, blocked and locked the front door and turned off the lights. The manager’s efforts stalled the gunman long enough for law enforcement to arrive.
“There was a manager well aware of what could occur and, from a planning response, knew what to do,” Ewing says.
How the people in the store might have responded had the manager not acted expeditiously is another matter. For all the attention devoted to mass shootings, there is no playbook for those trapped by circumstances when the quotidian dissolves into chaos.
Spiess is as prepared as anyone. Acutely aware of what can happen at a moment’s notice, he assesses escape routes in every public space he enters. “Know your surroundings and know how to get out of there,” he says.
Keep in mind, though, that Spiess has constructed a business model around building security. Most Americans don’t consider the worst-case scenario as they take a seat at the cinema, peruse merchandise in a favorite shop or go to work in the morning. But Spiess and other experts concede there is no tried-and-true prescription for getting out of harm’s way.
Second Amendment devotees famously argue in favor of using personal weapons to incapacitate a mass shooter. The ABB employee who embraced the tactic didn’t fare too well. After Hendron began shooting, the employee retrieved a .380-caliber Walther PPK/S pistol from his truck and fired six shots. None struck the assailant, and Hendron’s return fire severely wounded the employee.
When Jared Lee Loughner opened fire in a Tucson shopping center in January 2011, a concealed-carry permit holder named Joe Zamudio pulled out his own gun in response. Loughner’s rampage left six dead and 12 injured, including Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Zamudio later acknowledged he almost shot the bystander who wrested the gun from Loughner. “I could have very easily done the wrong thing and hurt a lot more people,” Zamudio told reporters.
Mocsary, the professor, says research suggests the “proliferation” of legal concealed-carry weapons in the U.S. has not resulted in a “significant” uptick in lives saved during shooting sprees. “That is not the case,” he says.
Ewing says survival is predicated on reacting swiftly—the average multiple shooting unfolds over two to five minutes—and, if possible, rationally. At schools, ominous active-shooter response drills long ago took their place alongside the more mundane fire drill. Experts advise teachers and students to block doors with any oversized items within reach. Once the doors are secured, students are instructed to hide in closets and study areas, or to lie as low as possible.
The merits of “sheltering in place” versus fleeing is also part of the conversation in workplace survival primers. Ewing notes how difficult it is to shoot a handgun accurately, “especially under stress,” from a distance of more than seven feet. “Putting distance between you and the shooter is very important,” he says.
Feigning death is another strategy for emerging from a rampage alive. “Go prone,” Ewing counsels.
Should all else fail, he urges anyone cornered by a gunman to set pride aside and plead for his or her life. “In some cases that has worked,” Ewing says. “And in some cases, it doesn’t.”
The end of gunfire doesn’t necessarily signal the cessation of danger. The arrival of law enforcement can be equally fraught with peril.
“Employees need to know how important it is that they keep their hands up,” Ewing says. “The cops need to see your hands—it tells them whether you’re a threat or not. Don’t reach into your pocket for a cellphone or a wallet. It can be construed as a hostile act. And don’t run toward the cops screaming, shouting or pointing. “Wait for them to ask you to move to a safe place,” he says.
Drawing on a lesson learned at ABB, law enforcement has altered its tactical response to reports of an active shooting in progress. Spiess says St. Louis police dispatchers acted on their training by taking the time to calm panicked ABB employees. But police now recognize the top priority has to be finding the shooter. Today, dispatchers are instructed to minimize the length of each call, hanging up if necessary, until they find a caller with the gunman in sight.
“Keep moving until you get to the person who sees the shooter,” Spiess says. “That’s the big lesson.”
Ewing suggests forward-thinking companies that implement programs to protect themselves and their employees take the initiative to another level by adopting a protocol in the event of a worst-case scenario. The contingencies include retainers with a mental health counseling service and a public relations firm specializing in crisis management.
Ewing, in his webinar, cited the plan enacted by a shopping mall management company after a holiday shooting spree that resulted in nine deaths. Within hours, the management had a crisis intervention team and media specialists in place to deflect the focus of media coverage from the mall itself to the victims. They created a memorial that instantly became a site for communal mourning, established a victims’ fund, connected shoppers and mall workers with grief counselors and guided management through the process of reopening the mall for business.
“It worked in my mind because (management) thought about these things ahead of time,” Ewing said.
His takeaway from the mall response: Businesses engulfed in tragedies beyond their control should never “focus on the blame game.” The payoff, according to Ewing, was that the mall did not have to pay any damage claims.
Professor Mocsary says he does not envision mass-shooting policies trending up.
“My instinct is that this is sort of a fear thing, a just-in-case thing,’” Mocsary says. He believes the policies would be dropped if the company were to face serious financial problems.
Given the outsize chance against a business becoming a target of a mass shooter, Zelig says, companies should redirect resources to a more common problem.
“If you want to talk about liability, it’s not in workplace shootings; it’s in workplace assaults,” he says. “It will be cost effective if the goal is preventing assaults. But a program that just targets homicides goes back to predicting where the next shark attack is going to be.”