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on security

Jun 11, 2019 | 10:00 GMT

9 mins read

Lessons from a Workplace Shooting in Virginia Beach

Crime scene experts from the FBI remove evidence from a black SUV on the day after a mass shooting at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center on June 1, 2019.
(CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images)
Highlights
  • Incidents of workplace violence and mass public attacks are a persistent concern.
  • Training for responding to active shooters and other attacks can help save lives in the event of an attack.
  • Nevertheless, proactive security measures must accompany any response to help avoid attacks. An ounce of prevention is always better than a pound of cure.

The Friday afternoon was passing normally for employees at Virginia Beach's municipal complex. As 4 p.m. rolled around on May 31, most were undoubtedly thinking about their plans for the upcoming weekend. Their peaceful afternoon, however, was soon shattered by an all-too-common occurrence: a workplace shooting. In a massacre that would ultimately kill 12 and injure four more, an engineer who had worked for the city for 15 years killed a contractor outside before entering Building Two and gunning down co-workers on three different floors.  

Police received the first dispatch call at 4:07 p.m.; within 7 minutes, they had proceeded through the complex's maze of offices and cubicles to engage the gunman in a stairwell. The assailant, who was armed with two .45 ACP pistols and, it would appear, a large amount of ammunition, began to fire at police, leading to a protracted gunfight. At 4:44 p.m., police managed to storm an office in which the shooter had barricaded himself. Finding the assailant seriously wounded, officers rendered first aid, but the gunman succumbed to his injuries.

The Big Picture

People with different motivations, ranging from ideology to hate, personal grievances, mental illness and more, can all conduct mass public attacks. Because of this, companies, organizations and individuals must understand how such attacks occur and how to properly respond to them — or, better yet, avoid them.

According to a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives special agent, the killer had no criminal history and had legally acquired the pistols used in the attack. At the time of this writing, police had yet to establish a motive for the shooting or whether he had a hit list — although reports noted that he encountered at least three individuals whom he chose not to shoot. The New York Times also cited an unnamed city employee who said the shooter had recently exhibited behavioral issues and become involved in a physical altercation in the workplace in the week before the shooting, leading superiors to threaten disciplinary action. And on the morning before the assault, the engineer reportedly sent a two-line email to his superiors, noting that he was quitting for "personal reasons" — suggesting that larger problems and workplace grievances incited the assailant to conduct the shooting.

Once more, the attack highlights the threats posed by workplace violence and mass public attacks. And as in past shootings, the Virginia Beach massacre offers several lessons to all — whether it's putting distance between oneself and a shooter, recognizing warning signs like behavioral changes or more — that can help prevent such an incident.

Minimizing the Danger

Perhaps the first takeaway from this incident is that active shooter responses such as "avoid, deny, defend" work. According to several firsthand accounts, a number of people recognized that a shooting was occurring, and then ran out of the building, thus avoiding the gunman. Their action also goes to show something I've noted in the past, namely, that motion, distance, angle, cover and concealment (MDACC) are your friends in any shooting. The distance element is especially important in cases involving handguns, as they have shorter effective ranges than rifles.  

Dozens of other employees, meanwhile, escaped danger by barricading themselves inside offices or designated safe spaces. There is no indication that the shooter attempted to enter any of the locked doors — and other than the 2008 Mumbai attacks, I can't recall another mass attack incident in which shooters attempted to break down locked doors. Still, the shooter did fire through some doors and walls at police, as well as into at least one room in which people had sought shelter — providing an instructive reminder that while some doors and walls will prevent an assailant from entering a space, they might not stop bullets. At best, walls and doors provide concealment, but not much in the way of cover — protection from bullets. Because of this, those sheltered in a room should always seek to hide behind something substantial, such as a metal filing cabinet or a piece of heavy wood furniture that can provide additional cover.    

Because of the protracted nature of the incident, rescuers could not transport any of the victims to the hospital for 33 minutes. This reality underscores the importance that people receive training to stop the bleed, that organizations purchase stop-the-bleed kits for their offices and that individuals carry such kits to use on themselves or others in emergency situations. For more on stop the bleed or to purchase kits, please see this external link: https://www.bleedingcontrol.org/.

In a press conference after the incident, Virginia Beach's police chief noted that his department had recently completed active shooter training, which assisted his officers' response to the shooting. In an active shooting situation, every minute is critical, so the officers' success in quickly engaging the shooter undoubtedly saved lives. The incident further shows that active shooter protocols, in which the first officers on the scene form a team and immediately enter to engage the shooter (rather than wait for a SWAT team to arrive), increases the survival rate.

Ultimately, no reactive measure can put a fired bullet back in the chamber.

Stopping an Attack Long Before It Happens

Virginia Beach, however, also illustrates that while training on active shooters and first aid help mitigate the impact of an attack, they are mere responses to an attack in progress; ultimately, no reactive measure can put a fired bullet back in the chamber. Mass public attacks are now a fact of life, meaning it is critical that that law enforcement agencies and security personnel also focus on implementing proactive measures to prevent an attack before an assailant can launch one.

In the past, I've noted how watching for signs of pre-operational surveillance is a key proactive step in cases involving outside actors, since those planning an attack are vulnerable to detection as they conduct reconnaissance. Good access controls that help limit an attacker's ability to enter a building are also helpful in many cases, especially those involving an outside attacker. In Virginia Beach, however, the attacker was an insider. In such cases, a prospective attacker will have intimate knowledge of the facility and its physical layout; people's routines, habits and seating arrangements; and, in many cases, unimpeded access (which is why managers and human resources personnel must immediately inform employees and access control officers when a co-worker has been terminated and is no longer permitted on the premises). Because of this inside knowledge, an assailant's progression through the attack cycle will obviously differ from that of an outsider planning an assault on the same facility. Consequently, the type of proactive measures required to thwart an insider's attack must obviously be different.

But while insiders naturally enjoy the aforementioned advantages, they will also have far more interpersonal contact with their intended victims than external attackers, thereby giving co-workers more opportunity to spot warning signs of an impending attack. That's because, in contrast to popular perception, people rarely "just snap" and abruptly shoot their colleagues. Instead, there are ample warning signs prior to almost all incidents of workplace violence, many of which are the culmination of a number of factors that drive a disgruntled person to take the final step of going on a shooting spree. Financial problems, failed relationships, mental illness, a lack of job advancement, and real or perceived injustice at the hands of a co-worker or supervisor have all contributed to past outbreaks of workplace violence. In such cases, attackers tend to target a specific person or group of people against whom they bear grievances.

If the reports are true that the assailant recently developed behavioral problems that resulted in violent confrontations, then there did appear to be warning signs of more serious problems to come. Perhaps the shooter's supervisors failed to report his behavior, or perhaps the city lacked a mechanism to report potential signs of workplace violence. It's also possible that they did report the behavior but that higher-ups did not take their complaints seriously enough; alternatively, perhaps the mechanism to evaluate such potential threats was too slow to initiate an investigation before the attack. The final police report is likely to address all these factors. 

But no matter what did (or did not) happen in Virginia Beach, it is critically important that security personnel, people managers, human resources officers, mental health professionals and law enforcement work together to identify and investigate potential warnings. There are many excellent tools available to help assess the threat that individuals pose in the workplace, such as Reid Meloy and Stephen White's "Workplace Assessment of Violence Risk" (WAVR-21), but unless there is a will and system to use such tools, they can do little to prevent attacks.  

In addition to those formally tasked with keeping the workplace safe, employees play a critical role in preventing workplace violence.

The Importance of Communication

In addition to those formally tasked with keeping the workplace safe, employees play a critical role in preventing workplace violence. Employees have regular contact with far more people than a corporate security department can ever hope to reach, no matter how many officers and cameras it deploys. They also normally have more contact with their peers than a supervisor or human resource department does — something that gives them more opportunities to notice potential problems. Because of this, employees must receive training to recognize the warning signs, as well as clear instructions about what to do if they see something worrying.

As I've discussed in the past, some warning signs can include a sudden change in behavior, decreased productivity, uncharacteristic tardiness and/or absences, or withdrawal from one's circle of friends. The theft or sabotage of property is another sign, as is the sudden display of negative traits such as irritation, snapping at or abusing co-workers or even a sudden disregard for personal hygiene.

Perhaps the most direct sign of impending violence is talk about suicide or the expression of actual or veiled threats. If co-workers or supervisors feel afraid of a person — even if they can't articulate any concrete reasons for such a fear — that is a significant warning sign (and has been noted in several past incidents). At the same time, any employee who suddenly begins bringing a gun or other weapon to work and shows it to co-workers should set off alarm bells. In such a case, employees must have a clear way to report such incidents. Ultimately, communication is vital — not only from the workforce to the management or security team, but also vice versa.

When staff members take ownership of their company's security, obtain proper training and receive encouragement to practice appropriate situational awareness, they can work together with security and HR to form a robust network of tripwires to help stop possible assailants — whether an outsider or a troubled colleague. At the end of the day, such awareness helps save lives.

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