Threat Assessment: The Unique Role of the Forensic Clinical Psychologist

Deb Kirby

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Jan 3, 2023

One of the unsung heroes of threat assessment and workplace violence prevention is the forensic clinical psychologist. I’ve worked with many over the past few years and, collectively, they’ve earned my respect and appreciation. When someone’s actions or behaviors raise concerns that they may be on a path to violence, organizations can utilize forensic clinical psychologists and their unique skills to assess an individual’s risk potential.

How Forensic Clinical Psychologists Support TATs

While behavioral threat assessment team (TAT) members include representatives from across the organization – including human resources, security, legal and executive management – none have the skill, experience or insight that a forensic clinical psychologist provides, given their knowledge and ability to evaluate human behavior. Forensic clinical psychologists can serve either as formal members of TATs or external professionals providing assessment and advisory services to TATs. In addition to supporting TATs aligned with individual organizations, including large employers, clinical psychologists commonly provide services to mental health facilities and the law enforcement and justice communities.

Delivering Guidance Through Psychological Risk Evaluations

Clinical psychologists perform psychological evaluations to help identify a subject’s level of violence risk potential. They use structured risk assessment tools, professional experience, and specialized knowledge gained through violence risk education and training. Psychological risk evaluations take the form of one of the following:

  1. Indirect Threat Assessments. These assessments address concerns related to current and former employees or non-employees, such as domestic partners, customers, vendors or others. Examples might include an employee who has violated the workplace violence prevention policy or a non-employee who poses a threat by showing disgruntled or potentially dangerous behavior. The psychologist does not meet directly with the individual but instead bases their assessment on records analysis, open source and threat intelligence findings, and interviews with supervisors or others.
  2. Direct Violence Risk Assessments. These assessments involve in-person interviews with current employees who have violated the workplace violence prevention policy or are exhibiting concerning or aggressive behaviors. The psychologist also relies on records analysis, open source and threat intelligence, and interviews with additional personnel, frequently in the context of a formal assessment methodology (e.g., Workplace Assessment of Violence Risk, WAVR-21, 3rd Edition). This assessment often results in a clearer picture of violence risk because it captures direct subject input and supports a broader range of inquiry.
  3. Fitness for Duty Evaluations. These evaluations assess an employee’s ability to perform essential job requirements. Current employees are typically referred for a “fitness for duty” evaluation after supervisors or others raise concerns about them, or they have shown a decline in performance, attendance or behavior.

Three Things to Consider When Working with Forensic Clinical Psychologists

  • Assessments are based on a structured approach, not subjective opinion. Forensic clinical psychologists are trained to assess an individual’s potential for violence using a systematic framework that guides the evaluator’s reasoning across a defined set of criteria. Criteria include factors with the greatest bearing on violence risk and are based on existing research. As one among several structured professional judgment guides (SPJs), the WAVR-21 framework consists of tools (i.e., manual, worksheet, and intake and documentation questionnaire, among other elements) that clinical psychologists use to evaluate 19 static and dynamic violence risk factors, one protective factor (the buffers countering any violence risk) and an organizational impact factor.
  • Methodology matters, but context is also considered. The clinical psychologist cannot simply tally the factors, arrive at a “score” and then render from that score a probability that violence will occur. Because each violence risk factor is embedded in a unique context, any given factor may contribute to the risk formulation to varying degrees. The subject who exhibits only one of the factors listed may pose an extreme risk of violence if that one factor represents highly dangerous behavior – for example, brandishing a weapon in the hospital workplace while staring intently at her doctor.
  • Mitigating factors are taken into account. A thorough threat assessment also considers any “good news” in relation to the subject (i.e., mitigating factors against the risk of violence). For example, a disruptive employee with a strong desire and commitment to complete their governmental career and retire may present less risk of violence than another employee who has no ties to the organization or expectation of reaching retirement. A subject with strong family connections and no wish to disappoint others similarly may pose less of a risk. Sometimes strong religious convictions or social networks will mitigate the risk of violence. These and other possible mitigating factors are evaluated as part of a complete threat assessment by a clinical forensic psychologist while maintaining the subject’s privacy.

Address Potential Threats and Prevent Violence in the Workplace

In sum, the forensic clinical psychologist’s contributions to behavioral threat assessment are vital. Their training, experience and application of structured interventions provide a highly professional layer of assurance to all other experts – human resources, security, legal, law enforcement and employee assistance program representatives – in properly addressing the demands and challenges of violence risk in workplace and campus environments.

Jensen Hughes specializes in behavioral case management services and threat assessments for companies across all industries as well as U.S. federal agencies, other government employers and non-profit organizations. Learn more about our threat assessment and workplace violence prevention services.

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About the author

Debra K. Kirby
Debra brings command experience in patrol operations, investigations, organized crime, law enforcement training, policy development, data-led policing and internal affairs with an acute focus on integrity systems, covert operations and the need for strong accountability practices in support of operational priorities.