Why Motives Matter: Dealing with the After-Effects of Mass Violence

Debra Kirby

Share this post

Jul 7, 2022

On July 4, 2022, a mass shooting in a Chicago suburb during a parade resulted in seven dead. This was not the only shooting to occur that day. Eleven other mass shootings were reported. Over 300 mass shootings have occurred in the U.S. since the beginning of 2022, which equates to 1.6 mass shootings per day. For most of these incidents, we basically know who, what, when, where and how. Why these acts occurred remains under review.

While it may seem unimportant to question motives, the answer is of great significance to threat assessment professionals like myself and our Threat and Violence Risk Management team at Jensen Hughes. Understanding why can help prevent future violence.

The Purpose of the Threat Assessment Process

Threat assessment is the process of gathering and assessing information about individuals who may have the interest, motive, intention and capability of mounting attacks. Using a combination of investigative skill, corroboration and common sense, the threat assessment professional gathers information and evidence to make a thoughtful assessment of the threat an individual may pose to a target. Multiple factors are considered during a comprehensive investigation, including:

  • Mental and behavioral history
  • Current life situation
  • Motivation
  • Attack-related behavior
  • Facilitating and mitigating factors
  • Organization interest and affiliation
  • Specialized training and ownership of or ability to acquire weapons

Once an assessment is made, a plan can be developed and implemented to monitor the individual and intervene to prevent an attack, as appropriate.

Knowing Motives Helps Prevent Violence

Why is it so important to know a person’s motive for carrying out an act of targeted violence? Attention to the individual’s motives and attack-related behaviors and the systems the individual is involved with (e.g., family, work, community, criminal justice, mental health and social services) are key to assessing and managing a potential threat. Gauging the potential threat to and vulnerability of a targeted individual — or a concert event — is key to preventing violence. This knowledge base helps to develop and establish preventive behaviors and actions. How and when interventions can occur to interrupt the pathway to violence helps individuals at risk and provides insight to reduce future harm.

The ultimate outcome of a specific threat investigation is to determine whether an individual has the motive and means to commit an attack so that preventive measures, like court-ordered mental health treatment, surveillance, and liaison with family members and police, can occur. For example, following the Parkland School mass shooting, the Commission Report provided details that a threat assessment team could use to take appropriate measures to protect students and staff. It also demonstrated that an adequately trained threat assessment team and structured behavioral threat assessment process is critical to effective violence prevention efforts.

Understand the Warning Signs

Not all warning signs are clear indicators of violence. Further, when a direct motive cannot be found for mass violence, it leads to concerns that such acts are not preventable – so, why bother? While the after-action reviews and discussions are sometimes challenging, they help to save lives. Threat professionals assess each of these acts to develop greater awareness, knowledge and preventive approaches.

For example, our work in the after-action review of the Virginia Beach mass shooting identified indicators of increased isolation and workplace dissatisfaction. While not all such behaviors lead to a mass shooting event, our review of this incident provides a guidepost for threat assessment professionals as they seek to intervene and interrupt the pathway to violence within the workplace and other arenas.

The more we understand the motives and behaviors of assailants, the better we can be at preventing targeted violence through intervention, training and awareness. Learn more about how our security experts can help you foster a safe and secure working environment through our threat and violence risk assessment and management services.

Headshot of Debra K. Kirby

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.