Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Post Office Shooting

This makes me really sad--I know that these types of mass shootings can be stopped if someone would pay attention. Note that the shooter is a female.

Update: Of course, this is a surprise--who could have guessed that this woman was irrational for years?


Blogger DRJ said...

Help me understand what to look for in the workplace. Is it an obvious threat, such as when a person has made threats but no one took them seriously? Or do you watch for something more subtle, like signs of depression or odd behavior? Many people would qualify if we focus on individuals who might be depressed. How do we tell who is dangerous?

1:43 PM, January 31, 2006  
Blogger Helen said...


One of the interesting things I find about workplace or mass violence is that no one takes the shooters seriously beforehand. I once had a man call me to say he was planning to shoot up a post office where he worked and I contacted his supervisor--the supervisor's response? "Oh that is just crazy Larry--he says that stuff all the time." I told him crazy Larry might just be serious and they got him some help. If someone makes a threat to kill others, it should be taken seriously. Then again, not all killers make threats. Around 40% of mass killers are psychotic and the majority exhibit some behaviors suggesting psychosis. Personality quirks are common--usually paranoia, schizoid, narcissistic and antisocial. Around 90% of these types of killers have a triggering event, usually within hours or days of the murder that involves employment or a personal relationship--usually has to do with an affront or rejection. The person has a hard time accepting blame and blames others for their problems. My guess in this case is that this woman was fired or risked being fired from her job. There is a great book, "Violence Risk and Trheat Assessment" by J. Reid Meloy that explains much of this behavior.

Depression alone really tells you very little about a person's propensity for violence--it must be coupled with other traits and signs.

2:00 PM, January 31, 2006  
Blogger Bike Bubba said...

Per your comments, the Star-Tribune today noted that 39 kids knew that the Red Lake killer was about to try what he did. 39.

3:49 PM, January 31, 2006  
Blogger BobH said...

To Helen:

Wouldn't taking every "Crazy Larry" seriously create an enormous number of false alarms. False alarms have societal cost which has to be balanced against the cost of ignoring them when some of them actually do go berserk. As heartless as it seems, somebody (almost certainly an economist) once said that you can't consider every life as infinitely valuable or no decisions could ever be made.

I work for a very PC company that would immediately fire anybody who brought a handgun to work. On the other hand, there is no physical reason why a true lunatic couldn't bring in an arsonal and start shooting. I think this sort of thing will continue until the survivors of people murdered in this way start lodging multi-million dollar negligence lawsuits against companies who disarm their employees in this way.

4:00 PM, January 31, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks for the rapid breakdown in your above post to DRJ.

When I worked with youth at risk we were very aware of threats of suicide—every threat was a serious threat. People are—I think—on some level, asking for help when they engage in the overt ideation of violent actions. Unfortunately, in a highly mobile society communities are fragmented and necessary support mechanisms aren’t always in place for the people who need them most.

As for the shooter being a woman… Keep your eyes open—there’ll be more incidents like this one. Now women can bask in the easy going lifestyle of men—it’s all wine, women, and song out there. Someone ought to give Barbara Ellen a heads up over at the Guardian—maybe she can fantasize herself into the mind of a woman, two bricks shy of a full load, and tell us why she whipped out a gun instead of whipping up a peace-loving-superior-gender soufflé.

One last note: I used two spend a lot of time on the range with a Smith and Wesson 686 .357 magnum, unloading 158 grain, semi-jacketed hollow points. The muzzle blast itself was enough to knock targets over downrange. It was a might-bit harder for people to either side of me on the range to hit their targets while I was tossing four feet of flame downrange. How much harder would it be for a shooter to hit a moving target when they get to feel the business end of a firearm while they’re trying to shoot? One serious minded citizen with a sidearm, not necessarily a cannon either, could have saved lives—possibly even the life of the shooter.

4:33 PM, January 31, 2006  
Blogger Helen said...


What you describe is an expressive threat--that is, the threat is being used to regulate emotion in the threatener. For example, someone yells when they are angry that they want to kill someone but they have no history of violence but just yell inappropriately--this happens all the time. However, another type of threat-- instrumental threats--are somewhat more serious. It is used to control or influence behavior of a a target through an aversive consequence. For example, if someone is antisocial and physically, verbally and sexually abusive and they say to their wife something like I'll take you out if you leave me--there is more concern that the person will follow through.


I agree that we cannot take every crazy Larry seriously but this particular guy called my office, described what he was going to do and to whom--it was a big concern. It is a combination of behaviors that are alarming at times, not just someone acting a little odd or funny. The problem, it seems to me, is that you have PC companies like you describe that take every little thing seriously but then overlook the huge problem in front of them. I deal with those who stalk others, threaten co-workers when no one is looking or are just plain dangerous at work. On the other hand, I see people who are justifiably anger about something that the company or another co-worker did and are seen as a threat when there is not one. I am with you on the gun front. I cringe whenever I go in a public place and see the warning that one would be prosecuted for bringing a concealed weapon--if someone opens fire--the options are more limited. Israel has fewer mass shootings because you won't last long if you pull a weapon.

4:33 PM, January 31, 2006  
Blogger DRJ said...

Dr. Helen - Thank you for answering my question. Several things came to mind in reading your response:

This reminds me of teenage suicides and violent children. Don't they often send out signals or warnings that they are considering suicide or violence?

Who should respond and how? I guess that family members, coworkers, and friends would be the first to suspect something, but who should they tell? I can't imagine that local police would be able to help. The police can't lock up people who haven't done anything simply because they might do something. I believe some communities are trying to implement counseling programs for problem students, but I don't think that we can compel adults to be counseled unless their behavior warrants a committment hearing.

What about the other 40% who are psychotic? I take it that, with them, you are watching for behavior patterns and triggering events. Do any of us really watch each other that carefully any more? If a co-worker had a problem, privacy restrictions would keep me from learning about anyone outside my company, so I would have no idea what's happening with the hundreds of people who work for other companies with offices near mine.

Years ago, I read that these types of events are more likely to occur in jobs where employees are frustrated because they feel they have no control over how they do their jobs. As I recall, one theory was that this happens in postal facilities because the employees feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume and the routine nature of their work. What's the current attitude about that theory?

Events like this may be comparatively rare, but they are also quite tragic. Is it enough for people to be vigilant in schools and at work, or is there more we can do?

4:40 PM, January 31, 2006  
Blogger Helen said...


Yes, you are right--these mass shootings are fairly rare--don't have the stats at my fingertips but one concern is that, while small, the mass shootings in the US have gone up in recent years. You are right that it is precisely when people are feeling powerless and desperate that they can begin to be at risk for violence. I have heard this from patients and the school shooters have said, "I went from being a nobody to being a somebody, I felt powerless and now I have power." Well...uhh, no you don't, you're in jail but that is another story.

If you are being hassled at work or fear that someone is acting very strangely at work--stalking you, threatening etc., the company needs to be informed and is obligated to protect you. You must make this clear to them so they can take action. The best thing for companies is to have a plan in place for violence before it starts. This would include explaining to each employee when they start work what the rules are such as no threats etc. and quickly acting when someone is breaking these rules. If bad behavior is allowed to escalate--it is often too late.

4:59 PM, January 31, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr.Helen quote:If you are being hassled at work or fear that someone is acting very strangely at work--stalking you, threatening etc., the company needs to be informed and is obligated to protect you. You must make this clear to them so they can take action. The best thing for companies is to have a plan in place for violence before it starts. This would include explaining to each employee when they start work what the rules are such as no threats etc. and quickly acting when someone is breaking these rules. If bad behavior is allowed to escalate--it is often too late. /quote

I think you hit the nail on the head right there. A violent act is sometimes commited by a non violent person when provoked and harrassed for such a long time that that person can't take it anymore. It's not always the shooters that deserves the blame. I think our whole society punishes crime, but it doesn't punish bad behavior. Putting people down at work for no reason, just verbal harassment. It's not a punishable act. If you report it, people will laugh at you, but it could drive you over the edge. All of us can only take so much. PS: yes I was a postal worker for many years. ;)

6:25 PM, January 31, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Helen, I noticed you described the shooter as a female, not as a woman. This may sound pedantic, but the term "female" can be used to describe people and things other than women, such as small girls, mulberry trees, and hose bibs. I personally much prefer being called a man than a male; to me the term "man" is more personal and carries a lot more masculine range than "male", which seems one dimensional. I'm wondering if you called the shooter a female rather than a woman in order to put some distance between yourself and her.

7:56 PM, January 31, 2006  
Blogger Helen said...

Mr. Phillips,

I think I called the shooter a female rather than a woman because in the initial article I found--that is how they described her.

8:02 PM, January 31, 2006  
Blogger a psychiatrist who learned from veterans said...

I wonder if there are any dissertations on the subject of the regression to violence at the Post Office. A grandfather was a postman and someone from his circle said that, 'When you came back from the war (W1) and you were going to things a little bit better'.. This was the positive way to look at it. Fewer people could read; you were committed to following a certain regimentation. Wm. Faulkner, who worked at a post office, said of it he wasn't going to sell himself to anyone for the price of a first class stamp. It seems like people perceive it to be more of a Kafkaesque set of rules and loopholes now. I would be interested to read something like a set of 'core samples' which were interviews of postal employees from successive decades as to their perception of the post office, also have some review of the differences in rules over the years.

8:42 PM, January 31, 2006  
Blogger DRJ said...

a psychiatrist who learned ...:

My grandfather was a postman in the early 1900's. He eventually (1940's?) became the Postmaster of a large American city before retiring in the 1960's. He had a college degree and viewed his job as a profession, as did the people with whom he worked. It was considered a very good career during the Depression. Most of my grandfather's extended family (his parents and in-laws, as well as some of my grandparents' siblings and their families) moved in with them because he had the only reliable job that paid cash.

I think times had changed by the 1960's, and I suspect it had a lot to do with automation in the postal system. Instead of being a trusted caretaker of mail and important documents, postmen became cogs in the delivery system. I have distant family members who work for the Post Office - as postmen, clerical, and administrators - and I am always struck by how unhappy they are with their jobs despite the superior benefits and hours. It doesn't seem to matter if they are management level or not. However, based on their personalities, I've wondered if they would be unhappy in any job so I can't say if it's the job or the person.

12:53 AM, February 01, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My understanding, from a friend who is a letter carrier in Santa Barbara, is that the shooter was known to have serious mental health problems requiring medication. And that she had once before stopped taking her medication, suffered a breakdown and had to be physically restrained at work. So, the guess he had was that had happened again, which is very sad.

I've witnessed once what can happen to someone who requires anti-psychotic medication and stops taking it. The person didn't become violent, but was completely delusional and irrational. It was quite frightening.

10:23 AM, February 01, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Assuming the veracity of anonymous 10:23 AM’s assertion that the woman was on anti-psychotic drugs, then this woman was volitionally being chemically restrained. In other words, all she had to do to break the restraints was to stop taking her meds, and—correct me if I’m wrong—then she would have a fully blown psychotic episode? Forgive me for sounding a little flip, but isn’t there something slightly insane about this? She should not have been employed at the post office if this was the case.

Please, Dr. Helen, or any other qualified contributors, if my lay assessment is way off base disabuse me. My only encounter with something even vaguely resembling this incident was with a friend’s mother who was bipolar; if she skipped her meds she would slip into what I would describe as psychosis, believing she was being followed by the CIA. She threatened repeatedly to kill herself. Is this a similar condition to the one described in the 10:23 AM post, and is it reasonable to inject these people into the workforce?

12:21 PM, February 01, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Several years ago, a guy tried to pull a mass shooting in our town - at a gun and tackle shop where all the employees are required to carry a sidearm, and a sign on the door said "All weapons must be checked upon entry - this does not apply to CCW permit holders." I don't think a would be shooter was ever so happy to see the police arrive. No one was hurt.

12:45 PM, February 01, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think one thing supervisors should do is ask themselves if some person was likely to commit vandalism or sabotage if disciplined or fired.

Work place killings are simply a subset of that type of behavior, directed toward people instead of toward inanimate objects, but the behavior class should be guarded against as a matter of course.


12:46 PM, February 01, 2006  
Blogger Helen said...


A mentally ill person taking medications is allowed to work and in fact, comes under the rules for the American With Disabilities Act for special accomodations. The Post office hires, as I understand it--veterans and others with disabilities. People react differently when off of their psychotropic medications but some do become more violent--a study by the NY Times showed that rampage killers often were off their medications when comitting their crimes. However, when people are taking their meds and they are effective, they are often no more violent then the normal population. Just as an aside--no manager or stressor can make a normal person snap and go on a killing rampage--there are a number of numerous complexities that go into this behavior.

What you describe with your mother's friend sounds more like a delusional disorder perhaps--that is the presence of one or more nonbizarre delusions. Non bizarre delusions involve situations that can conceivably occur in real life--being followed, poisoned, loved at a distance etc. A schizophrenic person might believe something bizarre--a stranger has removed his or her organs and replace them with someone else's organs without leaving a scar.

1:12 PM, February 01, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm wondering if this woman - and some of the other mass murderers of the past, could have been helped by a mental health system that actually has a chance of working.

I believe you've noted before Helen - the strange rules that have been thrust upon society in a misguided effort to keep people out of hospitals where they might receive the right kind of help.

As for the security at the building... as noted by gs above - it sounds as if security is rather simplistic at the site. It was never meant to stop a determined shooter (actually little can do that... especially if the shooter has every intention of dying during the assault).

Security is expensive - even the rudimentary security at that facility. It costs money which is part of the postal rates... there are many centers like that around the country to move mail - think of the increase in cost if they went to a full "lock down" of these places. Your postal rates would go through the roof - and I doubt it would stop a determined assault. Besides, if the next assault follows in the short term - it's highly unlikely that it will be a postal facility - it will more likely be a factory of some sort.

No - Helen is right - working on identifying these troubled people before they strike is a much better way to handle it. Will this happen? Maybe for a while - then it will die down until the next big outbreak.

2:04 PM, February 01, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr. Helen--

I agree with you that these types of people can be identified, but how can they be stopped?

Let me give you an example: I am a retired MD who still works for a living. In my last place of employment (a small family restaurant) I witnessed the owner refusing to hire back an extremely odd young man who had quit the establishment 6 months previously. In my estimation, this young man was a bit schizy--he definitely displayed a flattened affect and some loosened associations.

After he had left, the restaurant's owner was telling me how this young man had recently been to jail for angrily pulling a phone off the wall at his mother's home and throwing it at his mother. This information was sobering to me, and I asked my employer, "Is he going to come back here someday with a shotgun?"

From the look in the owner's eye, I could see that he had never even *considered* this possibility, despite knowing of this ex-employee's odd personality and actual history of violence.

I left that place of employment shortly thereafter, so I do not know what, if anything occurred later. But I definitely felt uncomfortable with the situation as it stood. So, all I have is this hunch about a person: I don't have enough to call the police; I'm not in a position to demand a psych. evaluation. What or who would stop someone like this man I've described from going postal?

2:24 PM, February 01, 2006  
Blogger Helen said...

ice scribe,

Most people do not believe that violence will happen to them--it is generally going to happen to someone else. If you ask schools if they think school violence is a problem--they say yes, if you say--could it happen at your school--they often say no. People think that because they know someone, however crazy, that this person is unlikely to harm them. In my experience, it is the people that these violent characters know that are harmed first. The reason--they did them wrong and are foremost in the perp's mind as the "cause" of the problem. You are right that the police would be of little or no help except to provide some extra patrol at the restaurant--but if I were the owner, I would be a bit wary. This is why concealed carry laws are important--but more important would be to get the young man help through family members or friends who might be willing to take him for treatment. I deal with people like this young man everyday and I have found that if they get help, they often do not become violent. However, if it makes you feel any better, even without help, the odds are low that the young man will "go postal."

3:01 PM, February 01, 2006  
Blogger Helen said...


There is certainly suicide by cop whereby a person puts him or herself in a situation with police where they get shot but I suspect you mean--is there some rational reason that someone chooses to shoot up--say a school where no one has a weapon as opposed to shooting up a police station where they would be shot and I would think the answer would be yes, there is some forethought at times. Some of these acts are predatory--that is, they are thought out prior to the shooting and carried out in some systematic fashion. That would include thinking about where to commit the crime and yes, even "crazy" people can be rational--which is why they may choose places where no one has a weapon. There is something called the policeman at the elbow test which says that if a person commits a crime while a police officer was at their side--they are probably insane. My guess is that if you are a shooter who wants to take down as many people as possible on your rampage, you would choose a place where you would not get shot at prior to the crime. Even if the postal worker in the post is sick--she still seems to have some of her wits about her to come up with a plan to get into the plant etc. I am always amazed by people who tell me they were "out of their mind" yet can think through and deal with many details prior to the spree.

5:23 PM, February 01, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The lights in the interview room weren’t working, nothing happened when the switch by the door was flipped. Carl walked three steps into the darkened room, “Hello? Ms. Sanmarco, are you in here?”

A soft voice, indistinct at first, began to speak from the darkest corner, “They’re crawling on me. Can you see them? Oh my God, they’re all over!”

Carl looked to the corner and softly called into the shadows, “Ms. Sanmarco, is that you?”

The voice became more clear—louder, “Can’t you see them?!” she hissed. “They’re going to get you, you piece of filth.”

A look of relief came over his face, “Oh good, I thought you had left.”

There was a moment of uneasy quiet. Something crashed, as if a drawer of silverware had fallen to the floor. Sanmarco slowly emerged from the shadows with a letter opener in her hand, stabbing in the air at some invisible target. “Die. Die. Die.”

Carl moved towards her and she flinched when he reached his hand out to pat her shoulder, “Good news. You have the job.”

“Is this where I register for a license to run a cat food business?” she asked quietly.

He shook his head and laughed, “You’ll do just fine here, Ms. Sanmarco, just fine. Can you begin tomorrow?”

She cocked her head, looking at him over her shoulder, laughing girlishly. In a creaking voice from somewhere deep in her throat, she answered without seeming to look at anything in the room, “Y-------essssssss.”

“Good! We’ll see you bright and early tomorrow morning.”

11:29 AM, February 02, 2006  
Blogger Helen said...

pat farrell,

You don't sound like a know-it-all. Sounds like a good observation to me. I know people who cannot hold other jobs and they often say they will apply at the post office. You do have to be somewhat high functioning to perform the job but from what I have seen, there are many who are not. Many postal carriers have told me the job is quite stressful. In their defense, the post office does hire a huge amount of people and just because of the sheer quantity of people hired, they may have a higher number of people who have a hard time with stress.

2:54 PM, February 05, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


5:32 AM, March 14, 2009  

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