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Informed risk management is key to curbing violence in public places

Risk Management

As employers, educators and businesses try hard to reduce the risks of violent incidents at their sites, experts say the key to curbing violence is an informed risk management approach.

In addition to the physical and emotional toll in human life and well being, violent acts at workplaces and public venues pose significant liabilities for those on whose premises the events occur.

“The liabilities, the civil lawsuits, the other sorts of settlements — the liability loss is significant,” said Rick Shaw, CEO of Awareity Inc., a Lincoln, Neb.-based provider of threat assessment and incident management and prevention solutions. “The reputational damage can be pretty significant also.”

Mr. Shaw cited a 2012 report from the Center for American Progress estimating that the 2007 shooting massacre at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University that left more than 30 dead cost Virginia Tech and state, local and federal governments $48.2 million. Those costs, according to the report, included $11.4 million in safety and security upgrades, an $11.1 million settlement with victims' families and $7.4 million for survivor mental health services.

To reduce the risks of violent acts, it's essential to consider factors such as location, operations, clientele and existing security measures, said Tracy Knippenburg Gillis, global reputational risk and crisis management practice leader at Marsh Risk Consulting in New York. “Owning or managing a public place has inherent risk in it. A lot of different things can happen where people get harmed,” Ms. Gillis said.

At the Los Angeles Unified School District, officials have launched an ongoing security evaluation since the December Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn., said Gregg Breed, the district's chief risk officer. The Los Angeles school district and its district police department “continue to evaluate the current safe school plans and best practices,” Mr. Breed said.

“You want to do everything you reasonably can, realizing you can't do everything,” said Ronald D. Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif. “If the crisis you did experience goes to court, they're going to ask you, "What did you do?'”


Responses to recent violent events have included calls for heightened gun control and consideration of putting armed guards in schools and other facilities. But, some experts say, the most effective step is creating an environment of risk awareness and risk assessment similar to that created around terrorism risks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “What tends to get dismissed or minimized is we already know an awful lot about the individuals who are likely to commit these awful crimes,” said Stephen G. White, president of workplace and campus threat consultants Work Trauma Services Inc. in San Francisco.

Many workplaces and universities are assembling multidisciplinary teams to assess individuals thought to pose a risk, Mr. White said. “It's not profiling,” he said. “It's risk assessment. And then, risk management.”

Speaking of shooting incidents like those at Virginia Tech or Sandy Hook Elementary Mr. Shaw said, “Those were very preventable. The signs were out there. It's all about connecting the dots.”

W. Barry Nixon, executive director of the National Institute for the Prevention of Workplace Violence Inc. in Lake Forest, Calif., said to address workplace violence, it's essential that the organization “acknowledge and accept that the possibility of violence occurring in their workplace is real.” They then can assemble a cross-functional team to develop a plan and identify vulnerabilities, he said.

In the workplace or elsewhere, a “culture of risk awareness” is essential to reducing the risk of violence, said Susan Morton, senior vice president with Marsh Risk Consulting's reputational risk and crisis management practice in Boston. “How do I recognize potentially risky behavior and what do I do about it?”

Ms. Gillis said, “You can apply that again to a mall. The policies, the process, who to call, what to look for if you're not comfortable with the way a certain group is acting.”

Ms. Morton said it also is important to remember that “sometimes workplace violence can be external. It can be an estranged spouse, for example.”

At Los Angeles public schools, Mr. Breed said, “Let's say you have someone who has a restraining order against another person. If they notify the school, we take appropriate steps to make sure that person doesn't get on campus. That should be a best practice.”

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