Sunday, April 08, 2007

Violence Prevention Toolbox

One of the ways to prevent violence is to have a repertoire of techniques to use depending on the context of the violence one is about to encounter--no one technique is always the answer, so I am always looking for good books to add to my violence prevention toolbox. I found one in IronShrink's book, Surviving Aggressive People: Practical Violence Prevention Skills for the Workplace and the Street. How does IronShrink (or Shawn Smith, his real name) tell us to do this? By using psychological techniques and understanding of those who wish to commit violence against us to stop aggression before it starts.

Smith divides aggressors into two categories: The Desperate Aggressor and the Expert Aggressor. The Desperate Aggressor is one of the most common and is someone you might encounter in a work situation who feels that they have run out of options. "Violent crime in America is often spontaneous: someone loses their temper and the results are tragic. When an otherwise rational person reaches a high level of emotion, when they perceive no solution to their problem, then violence--normally not something they would even consider--may seem to them like their only option." These aggressors don't like to feel helpless and seek to regain their feelings of control. They are poor at problem solving and often another person who is skilled can help them to restore their composure. The book gives suggestions in concrete form on what to say and how to do this. Finally, Desperate Aggressors display verbal and physical indicators of stress. They might feel cornered, panicked and ashamed.

I enountered a situation like this very early in my career when I worked for the state of New York as a psychologist. A patient who had been living in the Willowbrook State School where he had been living a hard life was assigned to me. The first time I met him, he was holding some staff keys that I needed. Stupidly, I reached out my hand to him and said, "Give me the keys, please." The next think I knew, the patient punched me full force in the face and sent me flying into the wall behind me. I realized immediately that I should never have extended my hand outward and it threatened him. From then on, if I needed something from this patient, I would ask him to drop it on a nearby table and learned never to extend my hand to certain patients--it was seen as too much of a threat.

The Expert Aggressors are a different lot than the Desperate Aggressors in that rather than seeing violence as the last option, they view it as the preferred option. They are interested in social or material gain, in taking something that does not belong to them. They tend to attack those who are suitable victims and choose those who offer the greatest chance of success. They use "testing rituals" to determine the willingness of a victim. Some people will tolerate being attacked more than others. Those who are too trusting, kind or loving make the best victims. There are some very good techniques in the book to keep the Expert Aggressor from going too far. I have first hand experience in working with thousands of clamaints for disability evaluations who were Expert Aggressors. Some of the claimants would initially come in and try to use threats to get a positive evaluation or try to take over my personal space. When they saw that I put a stop to that immediately, and was not intimidated in the least, they stopped the nonsense and were fairly cooperative.

My only real criticism of the book is that Smith has a section on "weapons and gimmicks" and warns readers that weapons can be used against them, may not work, or may be used by younger members of the family. I have noticed that almost all psychologists have to plant a seed of doubt about weapons--their liberal training almost demands it. Weapons have saved the lives of multitudes of people. With the right training, they can work wonders; rarely are they turned on their owners. Does it happen? Yes, but not often. In my opinion, the willingness to use whatever works in an aggressive encounter, including weapons, and violence oneself may be the difference in whether one survives or gets out unscathed. Don't believe it when you are told not to use weapons to defend yourself, it is often psychological propaganda intended to erode our second amendment rights.

That said, I do recommend this book for those of you who work in Human Resources departments like the Evil HR Lady or are in a management position where you hire and fire. The techniques look sound and could even save your life or that of one of your employees. I must say that in my career, I have dealt with thousands of potentially aggressive people and used similar techniques to keep myself safe--if you understand what and who you are dealing with, you can often reduce the chances that aggression will take you by surprise.



Blogger Helen said...


I should have made clear that this was a mentally retarded adult who went to Willowbrook as a child. He learned from past experience that if someone reached out, they might hurt him and he learned to attack first. He was severely mentally retarded, had cognitive deficits, older (sixties?) and I was assigned as a psychologist to teach the staff to deal with him. Part of that was to realize how to talk with him to keep him calm. Several staff accompanied him everywhere so that he would not harm others--certainly he would have had consequences out in the community. I understand your concern and realize that if he had been a kid who was not severely retarded, consequences should have applied within the confines of the agency. Staff did talk with him and watch him when I was around after that, but we never had any more trouble once I learned how to approach him.

12:08 PM, April 08, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...


For many of the patients we had, losing privileges etc. did work. However, this man was serverely retarded, that is, he had an IQ in the range of 20-34. He could not hold much of a conversation etc. Those with autism often are intelligent and do not necessarily have mental retardation so punishment may work. Certainly punishment is an option, losing privileges etc. yet in the case of this man, he really was so severely limited that working with the staff to monitor him was the best option.

12:31 PM, April 08, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw a guy defuse a situation on public transportation once. Five teen males got on the evening train and started to make trouble with people. While I was trying to work out a way of addressing it, and fretting about whether anybody else would respond, someone who'd just gotten on after them, sized the situation up, and walked into the middle of the group. Addressing the leader, he said, "I bet I can tell where you got your shoes." After glancing down at his shoes, the leader asked, unbelievingly, "Where?" And the guy in workclothes replied, "On your feet!" The group laughed, and they gave up on making trouble.

1:47 PM, April 08, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...

Anonymous 1:47:

Humor really does work in some situations. The book I mentioned does discuss when to use humor. You have to be careful and choose when to use it wisely so that it does not belittle the person who is potentially violent as that may egg the situation on more. The guy in your example obviously had some street smarts!

1:58 PM, April 08, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a difference from being passive and not feeding the situation. If you can accomplish your goal without creating an aggressive response, why not use it. I've done this plenty. I have not acquiesced in situations but neither did I react as the threatening person wanted. Many aggressors need you to help spin the situation up. If you don't, they tend to go away. This does not mean that you don't show your prepared, looking them in the eye and positioning yourself in a more reactive pose.

I was once threatened by a bum on the San Diego Trolley. He for some reason started threatening me as I sat with a friend. I tried ignoring him but that just encouraged him at which point he said, don't ignore me, I have knife and I'll stab you. I looked him in the eye, turned my body toward the aisle, facing him but didn't say anything. I wanted him to know two things, yes I see you and I am prepared to take your life if you push it. I immediately knew the situation was diffusing. I know to this day that if I had gotten aggressive in language or tried to threaten back, I would have been in a knife fight and I didn't have a knife. The bum moved on.

I look at it this way, when you get one of those people who start threatening, they are starting a merry-go-round. And they want you to help push. You may be stuck on it but make them do all the running to keep it going. Don't let them push you to add momentum to it. They'll get tired of doing all the work and go play somewhere else.

2:25 PM, April 08, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great topic. I feel more threatened by the Desperate Aggressors of the world then the Expert Aggressors, because the Desperetes, by nature, tend to have the "element of surprise" on their side, which is very difficult to defend against. Experts (like violent kids on a train) tend to wear their aggressions on their sleeves, and therefore provide a little time to access whether to "fight or flee."

2:32 PM, April 08, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting points regarding the tactics of Expert Aggressors in that, E.A.'s "tend to attack those who are suitable victims and choose those who offer the greatest chance of success. They use "testing rituals" to determine the willingness of a victim. Some people will tolerate being attacked more than others. Those who are too trusting, kind or loving make the best victims."

This phenemonon is what scares me the most about liberal democrats who attack their own military while showing their hand to the true enemy. If you believe that global thugs like Syria, Iran, and N. Korea fit the definition of Expert Aggressors (as I do) then you might also agree that these same thugs absolutely love it when fools like Pelosi, Albright, Carter and Wilson flock to their dens of iniquity to discuss "peace in our time."

3:16 PM, April 08, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...


"If you believe that global thugs like Syria, Iran, and N. Korea fit the definition of Expert Aggressors (as I do) then you might also agree that these same thugs absolutely love it when fools like Pelosi, Albright, Carter and Wilson flock to their dens of iniquity to discuss 'peace in our time.'"

They do, I agree with you. Acquiesing to expert aggressors is a mistake. Let's hope it doesn't backfire.

4:24 PM, April 08, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One more point, I was held up at gunpoint (9mm Glock to be exact) by 5 or 6 teenagers on bicycles (they couldn't have been older than 16) in Jersey City, NJ back in summer 2003. I could've removed the gun from the main perp (very stupid kid) about 3 times during the engagement, but wasn't sure about the other 5 behind me! Anyway, they got $30, I walked away with my life. I went on the web a few days later after the shock wore off, and inquired into anything related to personal safety (tasers, stun guns, collapsable batons, etc.) On EVERY personal safety website, there was a New Jersey clause preventing me from buying ANYTHING other than a safety whistle, otherwise I was the criminal. So, if Expert Aggressors are motivated and empowered by selecting weakness in their target audience, they must be having a field day in New Jersey!

6:56 PM, April 08, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I used to live in Jersey but no more. I like being able to defend myself and that state has changed to a pro criminal state.

9:20 AM, April 09, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Helen, I know this is off the topic a bit, but I have a conjecture and I'd like your take on it. When I was in college, I took a couple of psych courses as an elective. My totally non-scientific assessment of my psych classmates was that most of them were very needy, insecure individuals who were majoring in psych because they thought it would help them sort out their own problems. They very much had a need to be in with a group of people similar to them, and to receive praise and approval from that group. Anecdotal evidence from friends and acquaintances in the field is that they have also observed this.

So my conjecture is: psychologists tend to advocate anti-weapon positions because the the nature of the field is such that attracts a large number of people who have a strong need for group inclusion and for avoiding confrontation. Unfortunately I've never found any data that either supports or disproves this (admittedly, I haven't looked all that hard).

2:48 PM, April 09, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...

Cousin Dave,

Actually psychologists who have PHDs tend to be introverts and loners. We rarely are looking for a "group" to hang out with, preferring instead to work alone, hence the private practice. My guess is that those who go into academia are liberal in their viewpoints in general and anti-gun etc. Conservatives or even libertarians are not attracted to the field much and even if they are, the academic world is a poor fit for their worldview. Only liberals are left teaching and their thinking rubs off on their students or perhaps antagonizes their students and those of us who feel differently don't participate much outside of our practice or we write blogs to blow off steam and/or get our opinion across in some alternative form of media that allows for some diversity.

3:05 PM, April 09, 2007  
Blogger Simon Kenton said...

Dr. Helen,

with regard to the kid reaching out toward you, one of the interesting classes at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center was on personal space. It varies by culture, of course; a friendly Arab inhabits a space most Americans only admit lovers into, so they can move you all around the room by moving up into the space where they feel comfortable, and thus driving you back to reestablish the space where you do. Personal space varies by occupation; a policeman has a very short space in front, but a 25-foot space behind; a cop taking control of a situation will literally be right in your face, and I don't at all recommend moving in behind a policeman. But they also vary by mental condition; a psychotic has about an 8-foot space in front. Move into that and you may get attacked, because to the psychotic you _have_ attacked. There's an eerie confirmation in the story of Jack Abbott, who killed the water for getting right in his face, when all the witnesses said the waiter was pacific and 8 feet away when Abbott went for him.

Just wondering if something of the sort was going on with your patient.

8:25 PM, April 09, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I am always looking for good books to add to my violence prevention toolbox."

Sounds like a list I would like to read.

9:26 PM, April 09, 2007  
Blogger Evil HR Lady said...

I do find it scary that we HR types are expected to give advice and handle potentially explosive situations without much training.

And our backup should things go wrong? A security guard provided by a temp agency.

Thanks for the suggestion!

10:50 PM, April 09, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ronin: The funny thing about my psych classes was that the professor was an absolute behaviorist and a devotee of Skinner. He pissed off a lot of the touchy-feely students by doing things like telling the class how to make a rat neurotic.

9:50 AM, April 10, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can argue that lawyers are more ethical, or at least have developed a system that produces more ethical behavior, than psychologists. A judge must recuse herself if she is interested in the case, ie, has personal entanglements, prior relationships, financial interests, in the matter. And should she not, upper courts will remove her. Psychologists, on the other hand, do not have boards that meet with the aspirant and say, "You recieve your doctorate, but only on condition you never work on incest cases. Your own history has been too distorted for you to function up to the standards of the profession in that area." A friend came up against a female psychologist who specialized in custody assessments, who had found in favor of the woman 208 out of 208 times. I know of another whose eyes would literally glaze and her voice go dreaming as she recited incest statistics, all of which were male on female. These are mere personal data, of course, but it is not far to seek those salem witch trial psychologists persuading tiny children that they have been subjected to satanic rituals in mild suburban daycare centers. Psychologists are free to operate in the areas where they are most interested, ie, most likely to have their judgment distorted by their past and most likely to be seeking their own vengeance or healing. And they have no pre-facto mechanisms as a profession to guard the public against their loons.

11:22 AM, April 10, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...

Anononymous 11:22:

Perhaps it will comfort you to know that often, juries find the testimony of a mental health expert witness to be no more credible than the defendant's testimony in a criminal case. That said, not all of us are complete whores of the court and advocates for politically correct victims. Some psychologists are fair and try their best to use their data to support their conclusions in an objective manner.

12:40 PM, April 10, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agreed on the expert aggressors--ie habitual criminals--using specific testing rituals for victim selection (in the SD community it's often labelled the "interview" process/phase). However, it only applies to crimes where intimidation is the preferred mode of attack. If a thug/rapist/serial/whatever just wants to win, he won't conduct any verbal interactions--he'll just pick a target by location and apparent awareness, sneak up behind/beside, and attack with no warning at all. A no-warning assault from behind is pretty much the worst-case scenario from an SD perspective.

1:28 PM, April 10, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...

Anonymouse 1:28:

"A no-warning assault from behind is pretty much the worst-case scenario from an SD perspective."

I agree, which is why those of us interested in self defense need to be skilled in both verbal techniques and weapons, physical self-defense techniques. However, you did point out that the perpretrator looks for those who are not awareness. Certainly, awareness is an important factor in being targeted as a victim or not.

1:33 PM, April 10, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ronin1516 -
Put figuratively, let him be as fire. I went through something similar, though not so horrendous. I finally decided that fire doesn't fuss, doesn't issue idiot warnings about how it's really hot and it really means it and next time it really will burn, doesn't grumble darkly to its friends in a bar, doesn't lament what a lousy choice it made in selecting the wood but maybe the wood will decide to change, etc. Approach it, it burns. Every time my ex-wife did something, I was in court with a motion the next morning. Every time the "man hating and or incompetent MSW Social Workers" (a fair description, though mine were in Colorado) made a move, I was down the next day to require their documentation, filing appeals, requiring printouts and an accounting, demanding refunds, etc.

My friend who went up against the psychologist who had found for the mother in 208 of 208 cases eventually got custody and got the mother put on supervised visitation (which she never exercised; when all was said and done the kids had been nothing but a funds source for her). I got custody of two of my three. If your friend's son allows himself anger, let it be a means to focus. He can win this. He will win this. But it needs him to operate with the disinterest and inexorability of a natural law.

Incidentally, this example of yours is exactly why I commented that the psychologists don't have a profession. These people, in any real profession, should have been spotted and diverted into areas where they can function, or should have been cast into outer darkness. The only thing that's regulating them now works only on the ones in private practice, and that's their insurance. After my friend won, he sued the psychologist, who had actually helped the mother kidnap the children at one point. It was her insurance company that took her down. There's no such check on the ones in 'public service' (I intend the savage irony of that phrase).

Dr Helen, I admire you, and enjoy here. But no, I'm not comforted that the good sense of juries so often finds expert psychologist testimony to be incredible. And really, I don't think you're very comforted by it either when you reflect about it. I - and I suspect you would agree - don't find it at all comforting that your profession would allow these people to advance to the point where they can be qualified as experts.

12:50 PM, April 11, 2007  
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