Tuesday, August 16, 2011

"You Can't Handle the Truth!"

Some terms are so powerful even security professionals have trouble responding to them thoughtfully...

Another day, another debate amongst my peers...

Lately I've been doing some reading on cognition - bias, dissonance, and cultural of risk. I think that the specter of workplace violence, in general, and everyone's favorite boogieman - Active Shooter - in particular, threatens the worldview of many security professionals at a very deep level. We resist mightily the idea that these events are usually over seconds after they start. We want to imagine being there in time to help. We can't imagine being unarmed when the bullets begin to fly. I don't blame my peers for being more human than they know, but I hate to see them abusing statistics to fan the flames of fear to achieve some short term goal.

"Granted WPV/AS [workplace violence/active shooter] incidents are relatively rare but I also understand that they are essentially tied for being the number 2 cause of employee deaths in the nation – hence that is a legitimate concern for both businesses and security personnel...I am a strong proponent of planning for the worst and hoping for the best."

True enough about workplace violence in the very broadest sense, though the raw numbers are prone to misinterpretation. In 2009 there were 4,552 workplace deaths. The 542 workplace homicides come in third behind 645 deaths from falls, and ahead of the fourth place 420 deaths resulting from “contact with object.” Of all workplace murders, 75% were committed during robberies. The remaining were perpetrated by work associates (17%), family members (4%), and friends (4%). There is no "active shooter" category in the data.

More striking are the number of suicides at work, 263 in 2009. Half these suicides were committed with firearms. This is critically important, as employees inclined to kill themselves with firearms may choose to kill others before doing themselves in. The precise numbers of murder-suicides, where both a victim and the perpetrator died at work, are not clear due to the way the data is coded. Still, we can tease some numbers out of the BLS reports. “The homicide total for 2009 includes the 13 victims of the November shooting at Fort Hood.” “In 2008 there were 30 multiple-fatality workplace homicide incidents, accounting for 67 homicides and 7 suicides. On average, about two people died in each of these incidents.”  Between 1994 and 1999 there were 207 multiple fatality homicides accounting for 575 deaths.

There have been several active shooter incidents since the 1980s in which we can imagine that a quicker armed intervention might have reduce the death toll once the shooting started. Likewise, there are specific examples where armed security personnel terminated what was intended to be a mass killing – El Al ticket counter at LAX (2002), New Life Church (2007), and Holocaust Museum (2010). Of course, there is also the unfortunate example of the armed school resource officer who was unable to affect the outcome at Columbine (1999). Still, as a practical matter, it’s not obvious that simply arming security officers will put them at the scene of most workplace homicides in time to successfully intervene.

Should companies have a workplace violence prevention and response program? Absolutely. Should retail establishments have robbery prevention and survival programs? No doubt. Can an active shooter incident happen at work? Yes. Does it happen very often? No. Since the term “active shooter” carries such a strong emotional charge that we are tempted to overreact all out of proportion to its actual frequency perhaps we security practitioners would be better off not to use it as we prepare and promote our security programs.

UPDATE: Interesting a different thread on the same topic but at a different forum developed along the lines of the importance of employee awareness, early intervention, and prevention.

Our thread continued along its original line...

“How would the VT school shooting (Cho) have turned out if just one of the students or staff been armed?

I have read the same BJS report and distinctly recall that they chose NOT to count the nearly 3,000 dead from 9/11 but the reality was that most of those deaths did occur in their workplace environment.

For example your own acknowledgement that 75% of all WPV deaths occur from robbery (not A/S) would seem to further strengthen my own points and comparing WPV deaths to deaths from falls from ladders, or ‘robbery’ (resulting in death) from Active Shooter (resulting in death) seems to be missing the point.

Ultimately you may be at work or shopping at the local Wal-Mart but if one or more armed persons begin indiscriminately shooting down the employees and patrons all around you, do you want to wait for the public security response, which is most likely going to be at least a few minutes time, or would you rather have an armed security officer potentially able to respond in seconds?”

The question is one of resources. Arming security officers will double the budget [see correction below]. Adding sufficient officers so that there are enough to respond anywhere on campus or on any floor in the building in a timely manner will likely double it again. Even then most killers will be reaching for a fresh magazine, or eating their own gun, before your team even gets an emergency call. Unless you have other reasons - and there are several good ones - to arm your security staff doing so only to respond to active shooters is going to be very expensive and may not result in much harm reduction.

The conversation so far has been about arming security staff to respond to active shooter scenarios, not whether to arm instructors or let students carry concealed on campus in shall issue states. As for Virginia Tech, how would it have turned out if there had been a lock on every classroom door that could be easily secured by the instructor, or a student population that had been taught not to huddle like lambs awaiting slaughter?

Neither has this conversation been about the BLS record keeping and reporting criteria or whether or not 9/11 was a workplace violence incident. It wasn't, anymore than civilian casualties at Pearl Harbor were the victims of workplace violence. If you insist it was it still does nothing for your apparent case as there is no amount of armed guards, armed teachers, armed students, or armed citizens in the towers or at the pentagon would have made one whit of difference that day.

The relevance of the 75% robbery homicide statistic is that armed guards or even armed employees are a very expensive way to protect businesses that operate on very narrow margins. It also serves to point out that the active shooter boogieman that most employees worry about after being fed poorly explained statistics by lurid media reports are actually a small subset of the remaining 135 (25%) workplace killings across the entire country each year.

In the extremely unlikely event that an active shooter starts mowing down my fellow Wal-Mart shoppers I'd much rather have the means of my own salvation in my own hand, but an armed security officer might be better than nothing - if he or she is appropriately trained and equipped and in the right spot at the right time to do the right thing.

I'm not saying "Do nothing and wait for the cops." I'm saying that in most cases there are probably better ways to use the finite resources our employers and clients provide us to work with. This budget cycle I'm being asked to do as much or more with 3% less, not to quadruple [see correction below] the guarding budget to create a limited capability to respond to a problem that is about as likely being killed by a lightning strike.

CORRECTION:  I may have engaged in a bit of hyperbole myself (I told you "active shooter" makes security people crazy!) when I said arming the officers will double the budget.  That was a pretty big SWAG but I was trying to capture the additional recruiting costs, higher wages for persons I'd be comfortable asking to carry, the cost of training across the entire force continuum, overtime for regular qualification and retraining, armor - soft and rifle strength, firearms - pistol and carbine, accessories, ammunition, and higher insurance rates.  Still, probably not double (especially if the client nixes the carbines), but it could increase the bill rate by 50% easy.  I'll stand by my idea that in order to put two officers anywhere on site in less than three minutes (before the cops get there) I'd have to double staff levels.

REUPDATE:  As I was digging for details I encountered an interesting analysis of active shooters put together by NYPD titled Active Shooter: Recommendations and Analysis for Risk Mitigation.  All but 12 of its 192 pages is a compendium of active shooter and attempted active shooter incidents.  These are assembled from media reports and sometimes miss important details, but it's represents some serious work on someone's part.  It slips a bit toward the end by choosing to include several transnational terrorist attacks perpetrated in other countries, but otherwise it's a useful review.