Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Predicting Extreme Fatal Violence

Specific Signals

Different levels of risk are associated with different types of threats. When threats to return for "payback" are vague, implausible, inconsistent, or indirect, with no specific targets mentioned, this is considered low-risk. The risk level rises with specific details and with evidence of actual planning. A medium-level risk threat would be one that could be carried out, but indicators of the place and time remain vague or general. When preparatory steps are clear and the threatener has access to weapons, the threat now becomes high risk.

Whitmore's view from the tower
Whitmore's view from the tower

Those messages that are direct, specific, credible, and show planning are the ones to take most seriously. For example, Charles Whitman, with access to weapons, indicated he had recurring fantasies of climbing up the Texas tower and shooting people from it. He had access to weapons, he had anger issues, and he was depressed.

While not all mass killers signal their intent via threats, many do, and when they do, their words should be evaluated for the likelihood that they are ready to do what they are threatening.

For medium to high threat level, among the specific traits or behaviors that we should watch for not just one but several together - are:

  • A time-consuming preoccupation with themes of violence, especially attention to other such incidents in the news media
  • Low frustration tolerance in stressful situations, and few or no behaviors that indicate resilience
  • Significant recent stressors, such as broken relationships, loss, humiliation, or a number of such incidents in quick succession
  • Clear loss of personal power over a situation
  • A recent humiliation, followed by burning resentment
  • Collecting injustices (lists of names or targets)
  • Vocal blame against specific others, with detailed descriptions about what should happen to them
  • Sudden social withdrawal
  • Incidents that reveal persistent, unabated anger
  • Excessive need for attention
  • Intolerance and rigidity
  • Suspiciousness and paranoia
  • Increased substance abuse
  • Mental instability that involves aggression
  • Collecting weapons

While no country, company, school, or person can ever be entirely free of threat from someone who intends them harm, and while there will always be violence motivated by some irrational impulse, there are ways to diminish the danger.

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