Friday, April 24, 2009

Analyzing Threats: Forensic Psycholinguistics

Above: Threatening letter to a friend intercepted by police
Middle: Rationale of a "Rejected" type stalker
Bottom: Same stalker - ultimately killed his victim

A “threat” may be defined as a declaration of intent to harm. It may be the basis for criminal or civil liability. Threats are common, and most are not carried out. There is only a weak association between threats and violence, but there is an association. Consider the following statistics[1]:

§ 75% of threateners are not violent
§ When a threat is made, there is a 52 – 83% false positive prediction of violence
§ Attacks on public figures are rarely preceded by threats

In contrast to a clinical risk assessment done by a treating mental health clinician, a threat assessment is typically done by an expert with training and experience in the field of threat assessment. Competence in threat assessment comes from: 1) specialized training, 2) familiarity with current literature & research, and 3) experience in the field. The average mental health clinician would not reasonably be expected to perform a formal threat assessment of the type described in this course. The following table lists some differences between threat assessment and clinical risk assessment:

Differences Between Threat & Risk Assessment

Threat Assessment
§ Case-specific
§ Target specific
§ Usually not clinical
§ Goal: protect target, apprehend perpetrator
§ Procedure: threat mgt. plan

Risk Assessment
§ Population-specific
§ Actuarial or Structured Clinical approach
§ Clinical scenario
§ Goal: “predict” likelihood, reduce risk
§ Procedure: risk reduction/treatment plan

There are three possibilities in relation to a threat. The individual:

1. Made a threat, but does not pose a threat
2. Made a threat, and does pose a threat
3. Made no threat, and does pose a threat

Although there are many different types of threats, clinicians may be likely to encounter “instrumental” and “expressive” threats[2]:

Instrumental – made to control or influence the target’s behavior. They can be recognized by their conditional nature: “If you ____, then I’ll ____!”

Expressive – made to control or influence the target’s emotions. They can be recognized by their affective nature (ie., “blowing off steam”): “I could kill you!”

Expressive threats may be easier to spot and abort with management interventions. For example, some therapists handle them by allowing the patient to “vent” in a therapeutic manner, and then invite the patient to come up with nonviolent solutions to the problem. Instrumental threats may be more likely to be used by manipulative and/or antisocial individuals who may be less likely to respond to clinical interventions alone.

In a recent large DOJ study[3], 56.8% of stalkers made no threats, whereas 43.2% did make threats. The most common threats were:

1. Hit/slap/harm – 13.6%
2. Kill victim – 12.1%
3. Harm or kill self – 9.2%

This DOJ study considered stalking only from the standpoint of stalker and victim, and did not involve any stalker typologies. Among all stalkers, the following rates of violence were found:

1. Property damage – 24.4%
2. Attacked victim (hit, choked, raped, used weapon) – 21%
3. Attacked 3rd party or pet – 15%

The 3 Principles of Threat Assessment:

1. Targeted violence is neither impulsive nor spontaneous. Targeted violence results from an understandable process of thinking and behavior.

2. Violence is situational and contextual. Violence stems from an interaction among the potential attacker, past stressful events, a current situation, and the target.

3. “Attack-related” behaviors must be identified. Investigation and resolution depend on identifying the discrete behaviors preceding and liked to the attack. Attack-related behaviors move along a continuum from idea – to behaviors/communications – to preparations.

Key Questions for Threat Assessments:

1. What motivated the subject to make the statements, or take the action?

2. What has the subject communicated to anyone concerning his intentions?

3. Has the subject shown an interest in targeted violence, perpetrators of targeted violence, weapons, extremist groups, or murder?

4. Has the subject engaged in attack-related behavior, including any menacing, harassing, and/or stalking type behavior?

5. Does the subject have a history of mental illness involving command hallucinations, delusional ideas, feelings of persecution, etc. with indications that the subject has acted on those beliefs?

6. How organized is the subject? Is he/she capable of developing and carrying out a plan?

7. Has the subject experienced a recent loss and/or loss of status, and has this led to feelings of desperation and despair?

8. Corroboration – What is the subject saying and is it consistent with his/her actions?

9. Is there concern among those that know the subject that he/she might take action based on inappropriate ideas?

10. What factors in the subjects life and/or environment might increase/decrease the likelihood of the subject attempting to attack a target?

Examining the Data: Communications & Behaviors

The forensic psycholinguistic analysis is best done as a part of a team approach, where the forensic psychiatrist can meet with and obtain feedback from law enforcement, the victim, and the DA assigned to the case. From the outset, the forensic psychiatrist should pay careful attention to the quality of the evidence examined. It is recommended that the forensic psychiatrist obtain the best possible sample of the writing, communication, etc. A trip to the detective’s office may be necessary to view the original evidence.[1] This may also be useful where the detective involved can provide other helpful background information to the investigator in person.
If copies are used, make sure they are high quality and complete. It may be helpful to make multiple copies of single documents so that highlighting, notes, etc. can take place, yet you will still have a clean copy.

Review document(s) carefully, slowly and multiple times. Each review may be done with a different primary purpose. For example, the first review may simply be to obtain a general first impression. Subsequent reviews may be done for:

Identifying themes, motives
Identifying evidence of mental illness
Identifying threatening language, types of threats
Identifying idiosyncratic language or symbol use
Comparisons with other related documents
Identifying basic features, such as type of medium, style of handwriting, dates, drawings, postage markings, etc.
Method of delivery of the threat

After careful, multiple examinations, it may be possible for the investigator to determine important basic information such as the unknown stalker’s: age, sex, ethnicity, geography, educational level, religious orientation, and other valuable data.[2]

The use of language may also suggest different types of mental illness, such as schizophrenia, or depression.[3], [4] In particular, the excessive use of pronouns has been associated with high levels of psychological distress.[5] The use of metaphor or metonymy may also lend clues about an individual’s past experience, ethnic background, primary motivations and level of distress.[6] One psycholinguistic study of threateners from the FBI’s NCAVC database found that higher conceptual complexity and lower ambivalent hostility/paranoia were more strongly associated with predatory violence.[7]

A working knowledge of recent internet communication trends is important, as 25% of victims reported some form of cyber or electronic stalking.[8] For example, even a piece of data as seemingly unimportant as an E-mail address may suggest clues about the stalkers personality structure.[9] Do not fail to listen to any CDs, audiotapes or other recorded media, as stalkers may communicate what they believe are their most “important messages” in seemingly unimportant “gifts.”

Keeping the above principles in mind during the analysis, one should consider paying close attention to the following data[10]:

§ Changes in tone, affect, organization, etc., over time in serial communications.
§ Statements suggesting the stalker has knowledge of victim’s location
§ How the stalker perceives consequences of re-contact
§ Stalker’s responses to any past victim actions
§ Presence/absence of violent intent
§ Duration and intensity of infatuation
§ References to third parties, suggesting some degree of morbid jealousy. Thus, third parties may also be at risk if he perceives them as thwarting his goal.
§ Violation of personal boundaries (visits to the victim’s home or office to deliver communications)
§ Evidence of persecutory delusions coexisting with linear thought processes
§ Evidence of erotomanic delusions, and intensity of intimacy fantasies and unrealistic desires
§ Severity of mental disorder as suggested by communications
§ References to access to weapons or weapon usage
§ Language suggesting that the stalker views himself as an “aggrieved victim.” In some cases, this may suggest a lowered threshold for acting on threats, as the stalker may feel justified in seeking retribution against his perceived persecutors.
§ Evidence of or references to possible substance use
§ Antisocial and Borderline personality styles – (past failure to conform to the law, lack of remorse, fear of abandonment, difficulty controlling anger, impulsivity)
§ Overall personality structure suggestive of an “externalizing” style of coping
§ Statements demonstrating a forceful sense of entitlement (eg., “I’m not going to ask for you, I’m going to take you”)
§ Frequency and intensity of relevant cognitive distortions – (eg., minimization, denial and externalization of blame)

Finally, consider consulting with a qualified forensic document and/or handwriting examiner in difficult cases.

[1] Morris R: Forensic Handwriting Identification: Fundamental Concepts and Principles. San Diego, Calif: Academic Press, 2000.
[2] Smith S, Shuy R: Forensic Psycholinguistics: Using Language Analysis for Identifying and Assessing Offenders. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. April 2002, pps. 16-21.
[3] Stephane M, et al.: Empirical evaluation of language disorder in schizophrenia. J Psychiatry Neuroscience, 2007;32(4):250-8.
[4] Pennebaker J, Stone L: Katie’s Diary: Unlocking the Mystery of a Suicide. (D. Lester, Ed.). Ch. 5, pps. 55 – 79; Routledge Press, 2003.
[5] Henken V: Banality reinvestigated: A computer-based content analysis of suicidal and forced death documents. Suicide and Life-threatening Behavior, 1976; 6: 36-43.
[6] Eynon T: Cognitive Linguistics. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 2002; 8: 399-407.
[7] Smith S: From Violent Words to Violent Deeds: Assessing Risk From FBI Threatening Communication Cases. In: Stalking, Threatening, and Attacking Public Figures: A Psychological and Behavioral Analysis. (J. Meloy, L. Sheridan, J. Hoffman, Eds.) New York, NY: Oxford Press, 2008; Ch. 20, pps. 435-455
[8] Baum K, Catalano S, Rand M: Stalking Victimization in the United States. Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, U.S. Dept. of Justice. January, 2009: pps. 1-15
[9] Back M, Schmukle S, Egloff B: How extraverted is Inferring personality from e-mail addresses. Journal of Research in Personality, 2008; 42: 1116–1122
[10] This list of evidence consists of both risk factors from the literature, as well as the author’s experience.
[1] Calhoun F, Weston S: Threat Assessment and Management Strategies: Identifying the Howlers and Hunters. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2009.
[2] Meloy J: Violence Risk and Threat Assessment: A Practical Guide for Mental Health and Criminal Justice. San Diego, Calif.: Specialized Training Services, 2000.
[3] Baum K, Catalano S, Rand M: Stalking Victimization in the United States. Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, U.S. Dept. of Justice. January, 2009: pps. 1-15

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