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Gender and the Role of Bias in Threat Assessment – A Comment on the YouTube HQ Shooting

An unrecognizable female manager takes notes during the interview with the young adult woman.

Yesterday, an assailant entered the YouTube campus headquarters in San Bruno, California and opened fire into an outside patio area where workers were gathered for lunch, injuring at least 3 people, one critical, and then turning the gun internally and dying of a self-inflicted gunshot.

Reflexively, I want to write how “he” committed this act, what “his” thinking was, what warning signs we may have noticed about “him”, and yet in this case it is not a “he” but a “she”. The assailant was a woman in her mid-30s, Nasim Najafi Aghdam, a committed social media user, who had at least four Channels on YouTube, among other platforms. She became increasingly disgruntled over policy changes YouTube implemented impacting censorship and revenue opportunities. Nasim repeatedly posted her grievances, “There is no equal growth opportunity on YouTube or any other video sharing site, your channel will grow if they want it to! . . . YouTube filtered my channels to keep them from getting views!” After the shooting her father and brother described to local news how angry Nasim was over the changes to the site, “She was always complaining that YouTube ruined her life.”

In the days and weeks to come much more information will surface about this event, her motives, her pre-attack warning indicators, and other critical information. It is so common for misinformation to dominate the first 48 hours that I rarely comment on these shooting events within that first 48-hour window. Yet in this case we know of two things: a) a shooting occurred with at least three people injured, and b) a woman committed the act, and then took her own life. That gender alone is worth comment.

According to the FBI Crime Report and data analyzed by Mother Jones, since 1982 there have been 98 mass shootings in the U.S. (defined as the killing of 4 or more people in a public place; to be sure this definition has its limitations but that is for another post). From a motivational and attack dynamic perspective, this clearly appears to be a mass shooting attempt despite her (fortunate) inability to kill four people.

In the past 35 years, male gender dominates the mass shooting landscape:

  • 95 = male
  • 2 = female
  • 1 = both male and female (San Bernardino, 2015)

The female attackers were few and far between. Female assailants represent just 3% of the total, while representing 50% of the victims. Until yesterday, the two solo female attackers had very different dynamics, equally different in their ways as many male attacks have shown.

On February 20, 2014 in Altura, California Cherie Lash Rhoades opened fire at the Cedarville Rancheria Tribal Office and Community Center, killing four and wounding two others. She was facing eviction from her small home located on tribal land and was also under scrutiny for embezzling federal funds. One of the victims was her brother, Rurik Davis, recently appointed as tribal Chairman and who wanted Cherie evicted. This was an ongoing and heated feud. She was known to be angry and a bully to most familiar with her. From all data points she showed dysfunctional personality traits, but no known history of primary mental illness or treatment. She did not attempt suicide, but instead tried to flee the scene and was quickly apprehended.  She had actual external stressors, including facing eviction and possible federal legal charges, in no small way resultant from her history of making poor decisions.

On January 30, 2006, a former postal worker Jennifer San Marcos forced her way into her prior postal plant and shot seven people, then turned the gun on herself. Jennifer had a long history of severe and persistent mental illness, leading to her taking disability retirement in 2003 for psychiatric reasons. She began acting increasingly bizarre and had eventually relocated to another state after her retirement but continued to harbor paranoid beliefs that prior co-workers were conspiring against her. This fueled both her obsession and focus on taking action three years later when she returned to her prior job location with a 9mm Smith & Wesson, purchased legally at a pawn shop in New Mexico. She had a clear and prolonged mental health history. She was responding to perceived (internal) stressors fueled by her paranoia and illness, but without any external basis in reality. Unlike Cherie Rhoades, Jennifer San Marcos was suicidal and did kill herself.

Both women were troubled, but in very different ways. Yet, both women were insiders at one point in relation to the targets they chose. Rhoades was part of the tribal community. San Marcos had worked at the postal service several years prior. Conversely, Nasim was a true outsider, an external threat, with no direct relation to YouTube other than as a client. She was troubled as well, showing obsessive fixation about perceived grievances and believing YouTube “ruined her life”, to an extent she resorted to violence and took her own life.

The ubiquity of the male attacker in mass shootings is such that when I give presentations all across the country I consistently use the pronoun “he”. It remains one of the few “almost” certainties in the forensic field, and statistically remains the same even considering yesterday’s attack. Yet, the attack yesterday in San Bruno reminds us that despite very strong trends or patterns, each threat situation must be considered in its singular context. We must avoid a host of biases that are all too easy to fall into – “I’ve seen this before” (Foresight bias); “My experience on similar cases has shown he’ll do something in time” (Confirmatory bias); “I just had a case exactly like this one” (Availability bias);  “Women never do mass shootings” (False-Negative bias);  among other biases that can creep in.

Whether we work in threat management, HR, legal, security, upper management or some related area where these cases come across our desk, we must maintain an approach that applies our understanding of demonstrated risk factors together with our clinical experience in working these cases, yet always attuned to the unique factors that the case presents. To do that well and avoid a host of biases that can set us down the wrong path, a systemic approach is required. Here are four core components to consider in any systemic approach:

  • Develop a Workplace Violence Prevention and Intervention plan consistent with best practice guidelines, that is well trained to employees, and has clear policies and procedures in place for identifying, reporting, and handling threats and disruptive behaviors at the workplace.
  • Develop a Threat Management Team, with clear roles and responsibilities delineated so your organization can respond in a timely and effective manner to threats.
  • Implement an Emergency Response Plan for severe events, such as Active Shooter scenarios and similar incidents. The time to visualize these events, and your response to them, is well before the first shots go off.
  • Use a Structured Professional Judgment model for screening, assessing, and managing threatening behaviors. This is the gold-standard approach supported by the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals (ATAP; http://www.atapworldwide.org). This approach combines an understanding of actuarial factors that correlate with increased risk for predatory violence, coupled with clinical judgment of how those play out in the specific context with which you are managing. Most organizations do not have internal expertise to do this, but can partner with external threat consultants as part of their internal Threat Management Team.

The above recommendations are a solid start, and must be catered to your specific workplace sector, physical site variables, culture, and risk profile in order to be effective. No one size fits all.

In the days to come we will hear much more about the events in San Bruno, California. In the months and years to come we may or may not see an increase in female mass assailants. Yet, the difficult task of identifying, assessing, and intervening to thwart these attacks carries on, and we must guard against simplistic explanations which can easily steer us down the wrong path and away from successful identification and resolution.

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