By Dan Gephart, November 17, 2020
While the nation is grappling with a pandemic, the government’s most well-known scientist has been besieged with death threats. And as more than 150 million people exercised their right to vote earlier this month, state and local officials, as well as volunteer poll workers, also faced violent threats as they attempted to count the ballots.
This dangerous risk to our nation’s civil servants is not new.
A September 2019 GAO report and a subsequent article by Government Executive laid out the stark reality of the dangers faced by federal employees at one particular agency — the Bureau of Land Management. The report included numerous examples of violence against BLM employees, including an employee who was stabbed outside a federal building, and another who received hundreds of aggressive calls, including death threats, after someone posted his phone number on Twitter.
So you bet I listened closely last week as FELTG Instructor Shana Palmieri, LCSW, delivered the third and final of the webinars in her Behavioral Health series — Threats of Violence in the Federal Workplace: Assessing Risk and Taking Action. (The previous webinars were Understanding and Managing Federal Employees with Behavioral Health Issues and Suicidal Employees in the Federal Workplace: Your Actions Can Save a Life.)
Violence can come from a current or former employee, a customer/patient, a domestic partner, a personal conflict that spills into the workplace, or someone not known to the agency. Regardless of where the threat is coming from, it’s awfully hard to predict. More than 3 percent of the general US population commits one or more violent acts each year.
What are the factors that lead to violence? A lack of education, decreased social stability, and high unemployment are factors.
What’s not a factor? Mental illness. The majority of patients with stable mental illness do NOT present an increased risk for violence. In fact, researchers estimate that only 4 percent of violence in the United States can be attributed to mental illness.
“The potential of violence lies within all of us,” Palmieri said during the webinar. “It’s something anybody can be driven to as a human, not just a result of mental health (issues).”
During the webinar, Shana offered numerous suggestions for risk assessment and response management plans, with a focus on “intervention early on and using practices that are evidence-based to mitigate or de-escalate the potential for violence to occur.”
If you missed the webinar, and you’d like to book Palmieri, who handled the psychiatric aftermath of the Navy Yard shooting in 2013, to come to your agency (virtually or in-person), email me at Gephart@FELTG.com.
In the meantime, you can share with your staff these techniques for de-escalating aggressive and potentially violent behavior, which were discussed more in-depth during the training:
- Respect personal space – do not move towards employee. Don’t lean into the employee. Keep your distance.
- Be aware of your body position. Stand at an angle. “You don’t want to come in with a defensive stance. If I’m standing face-to-face, staring them right in the eyes that’s a defensive stance,” she said.
- Use a calm voice. If the aggressor gets loud, speak quietly. People tend to mirror those they are engaging with.
- Be empathetic and validate the person’s feelings. You don’t have to agree with the content of what the individual is saying, but you can let them know you understand that they’re feeling angry. “Stay calm,” Palmieri said. “Be present.”
- Avoid all power struggles. People who are angry will try to bring you into the fight. Don’t let them trigger you. “It’s very important to avoid that power struggle,” Palmieri said. “It will only escalate the dynamic. It’s not the time to fight the battle.”