Henry Bello left his apartment in the Bronx on June 30 looking every bit the medical doctor he once aspired to be. He wore a white lab coat over a dress shirt and slacks and carried a slim cardboard box. His appearance was so convincing that he didn't even need to flash an identification badge as he strolled into a back entrance of New York's Bronx-Lebanon hospital and boarded an elevator.
Bello got off on the 16th floor, smiling and nodding at the receptionist. Then he spotted Dr. Roger Green down the hall and yelled at him to come closer. When his former colleague refused, Bello drew an AM-15 rifle from his cardboard box and shouted, "Why didn't you help me out when I was in trouble?" before opening fire. Bello's shots missed Green, who ran away and managed to lock himself in a room out of the gunman's reach. From there, the rampage continued as the assailant looked for his intended target, Dr. Kamran Ahmed, whom Bello blamed for his forced resignation from the hospital. Ahmed wasn't working that day, but Bello pressed on nevertheless, wounding six people and killing a young doctor whom he had apparently never met. He tried to set fire to a nurse's station on the next floor up, though the hospital's sprinkler system kept it from catching, and then shot himself in the chest as police closed in on the scene. The dramatic incident was a textbook example of workplace violence — and one worth studying.
Pushing Past the Hype
Violence in the workplace is a fairly rare occurrence in the United States, despite the heavy media coverage such incidents attract. The number of workplace homicides fell from 518 in 2010 to 417 in 2015, the last year for which complete statistics are available. Of these cases, only an average of 12 percent were committed by a current or former co-worker. Relatives or domestic partners were responsible for about 43 percent of workplace homicides involving a female victim, and strangers, too, are frequently to blame for killing employees at work, for example during an armed robbery. Still, episodes of workplace violence are often serious. And in most cases, they are preventable.
When it comes to violence at work, cliches and myths abound. But contrary to popular belief, workers rarely start shooting their colleagues suddenly or without warning. Most instances are the result of a conspiracy of factors that build up over a long period of time. Failing relationships, financial problems, a lack of job advancement, and real or perceived injustice at the hands of a co-worker or superior have all contributed to past outbreaks of violence in the workplace. Furthermore, the perpetrator behind this kind of attack almost always plans it in advance and targets a specific individual — a supervisor, human resources manager or co-worker — whom he (or, far less frequently, she) blames for his plight.
Bello's shooting spree at the hospital was no exception. Accusations of sexual harassment forced him to step down from his position at the Bronx-Lebanon Hospital in 2015. His resignation interrupted his path to licensure as a doctor, and Bello struggled with subsequent jobs. On June 21, he lost his job as a caseworker with the HIV/AIDS Services Administration; he had stopped reporting to his post back in April — perhaps a sign of his deteriorating mental state. Bello evidently had fixated on Ahmed as the architect of his troubles and made him the ostensible target of the attack. He bought his rifle June 20, 10 days before he stormed into his former place of employment to open fire.
Like most assailants in similar incidents, Bello had given indications prior to the attack that he might resort to violence. Though media reports of the event include their share of accounts from stunned acquaintances in disbelief that Bello could commit such an act, several of his former co-workers described past threats he'd made. Dr. Maureen Kwankam, for instance, told the New York Post that Bello had "promised to come back and shoot one of the residents" after he resigned from Bronx-Lebanon and that he'd made comparable claims about at least four other people working there. Dr. David Lazala, who helped train Bello, recalled him as aggressive, loud and threatening — a constant problem. Adding to these accounts, Bello sent an email to the New York Daily News two hours before the attack in which he aired his grievances with the hospital and named specific doctors he blamed for them. The email didn't contain overt threats against the hospital, but it illustrated Bello's residual anger over the circumstances surrounding his resignation.
The warning signs long predate the attack and his time working at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital, for that matter. A former co-worker told AP that Bello frequently argued with nurses and bristled at being told what to do while working as a pharmacy technician at a hospital in Manhattan, a position from which he was reportedly fired for errors made on the job. Multiple press reports indicate, moreover, that Bello had a troubling criminal history. He was charged with sexual assault and unlawful imprisonment in 2004 for allegedly groping a woman and trying to carry her off with him. (Because Bello pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge in the case, rather than a felony, he was able to clear the required background check and obtain the rifle he used in the June 30 shooting.) Five years later, he was reportedly arrested for using a mirror to look up the skirts of two different women, though the record of the arrest is sealed.
Despite his history, Bronx-Lebanon hired Bello, and a spokesman for the hospital told CBS New York that the administration was not aware of any reports suggesting that Bello posed a potential threat. The claim, if true, indicates a bigger problem: Either Bello's supervisors failed to report his behavior, or the hospital lacked a mechanism for reporting, recording and assessing complaints. Whatever the case, the lapse in communication obscured clues that could have helped avert the attack. Hospital security could at least have posted warning notices about Bello at the building's entrances. A better solution would have been to instate a protective intelligence program to coordinate with police and monitor Bello as a possible danger.
Making Security Part of the Job
These shortcomings aside, however, the fact is that most corporate security departments are bare-bones operations devoted primarily to preserving physical security and preventing theft. With wide-ranging responsibilities and limited staff, security teams typically lack the spare capacity to notice that a given employee has an anger problem. Physical security measures such as closed-circuit television cameras and badge readers can help identify a perpetrator in the wake of an incident, such as a theft. But unless used in conjunction with forced entry measures — which are often deemed too expensive and unsightly for use in a public building — these devices seldom prove effective at keeping assailants out. Intruders have forced employees to open doors at gunpoint, stolen workers' credentials or simply shot security personnel to gain entry to facilities. Determination and intent can be all it takes to overcome access controls. To stop workplace violence, employers can't rely entirely on technology or security personnel. Though both are valuable resources, they function best as supplements to a company's main line of defense: its employees.
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. Besides, when staff members take ownership of their company's security, along with instruction and encouragement to practice situational awareness, they can form a robust network of trip wires to stop a possible assailant, whether an outsider or a troubled colleague. Communication is vital — not only from the workforce to the management or security team, but also the other way around. Managers and human resources personnel must inform employees and access control officers when a co-worker has been terminated and is no longer permitted in the workplace. In the event that the former employee issues threats, the management and security team must likewise communicate that danger to the rest of the staff.
Effective security programs are also proactive instead of reactive. Rather than responding to an attack once it is underway, protective intelligence teams must coordinate with managers, human resources officers, mental health professionals and law enforcement to identify and investigate potential perpetrators of workplace violence before they strike. Surveillance detection teams also can help flag unusual or suspicious behavior in parking lots and near entrances — areas a uniformed guard on duty in a facility would have little leeway to monitor. By focusing on behavior and demeanor, surveillance detection teams often can pick out angry or mentally disturbed individuals before they reach their targets. These measures, combined with an educated and alert workforce, offer protection that no technological system can match.