Events involving people occur at every moment of every day. In just one day alone you may say hello to a neighbor, meet a friend for coffee, make small talk with the teller at the grocery store, or sit in a movie theater with people that you don’t know. Throughout all of these interactions, it is highly unlikely that any will result in a threatening event or violence of any kind. With that in mind, however, Chapman University recently released their 2016 study of American Fears, which reveals that the threat of violence is something that the public pretty actively fears.

One fear that is prevalent for the American public that stood out to us at The CP Journal is the public’s fear of terrorism and their role in thwarting it. Based on the report, 38.5% of the American public is either afraid or very afraid of being a victim of a terrorist attack.[1] While the fear of terrorism currently sits at the top of the mind for many people, it is important to note that most interactions between people do not result in terrorism or violence of any kind. By working together to observe, actively and accurately, we can improve our ability to prevent violence between people, including terrorist acts. Using a recent event from the news as a framework, I will outline the three primary parties involved in threat prevention and how we can better work together, as an engaged public, to observe and report suspicious activity.

To serve as context for this post, we will share some recent articles that reported a recent situation that took place in Canada. The situation involved a person operating outside of what was normal for the area, a local resident calling the authorities, and law enforcement responding. In this example there was no violent act, but the components still exist to analyze the three main parties involved to help us improve our abilities as a society to prevent violent acts between people. The common facts of the encounter are that, on a rainy day in July, a man was reading a book in his car for some amount of time. This act was reported to law enforcement, an officer responded and approached the person in the car, and the officer determined that he posed no threat. Here are some additional links if you care to explore the situation further:

In any event where someone intends to inflict harm on another person or group of people there are three primary parties involved: the actors involved in the human interaction (i.e. the assaulter and assault victim), observers of this interaction for some amount of time leading up to the event (this time can be anywhere from years to seconds leading up to the event, a time frame we often refer to as left of bang), and an authority figure that is tasked with dealing with people that may intend to hurt others (this group can include police officers, military personnel, security agents, bodyguards, etc., depending on the area). In the situation outlined above the person in the car, reading a book, serves as the potential threat (actor). Someone in the neighborhood that has knowledge of the area felt that this person’s activity stood out from the baseline enough to warrant a call to the police (observer). And then, a police officer responded to the call (authority).

First, let’s discuss the role the actor plays in this event and future potential threats. The person in his car in this case turned out to pose no threat, however, his actions were observable by the public and were thought to be potentially threatening. He was simply enjoying a book on a rainy day in his car with a view of the water. By not posing a threat, or not intending to inflict harm on others, this person now becomes part of the general community that continues to observe for future threats. For the purposes of this example, this person becomes an observer of his self and has a responsibility to self-assess his actions for the purposes of threat prevention. The person in this case did not intend to inflict harm on anyone, however, he does still remain a member of society and, upon learning of his true intentions, then becomes an observer for the rest of us. That is a very important distinction because, while he was recognized for being out of baseline, he remains a member of the larger society and must continue to be engaged in the process to prevent future threats from impacting others. There may be instances where we are incorrectly reported as a person that is operating outside of the baseline. While this can be extremely frustrating, the best way to reduce these instances is to respectfully engage with authorities and appreciate the fact that their role in the process is to respond, in this case, to you.

Aside from people interacting with others, there are usually observers to those interactions. The neighbor, in the example above, who recognized the man in his car felt that the man stood out from the baseline so much that it warranted a call to authorities. The community has an obligation to observe and report anything that they feel puts their lives, or those of their neighbors, at risk. This obligation also includes a level of risk for reporting instances that stand out. Because of this, as a public, we also have a responsibility to properly engage authorities. When reporting instances that are out of the baseline, we must be confident that what we see warrants a response from local police. Now, of course, there are going to be issues with this process. There will be false positives, as in the example we used in this article. By working together, using the universal elements of human behavior to observe and report, we can continue to enhance our abilities to recognize anomalies and reduce future false positives. Like any skill, the ability to observe improves the more you do it, so the best way to get better is to practice.

While we have talked about actors and observers of interpersonal interaction, authority figures also play a substantial role in violence prevention. Law enforcement professionals have an extremely complicated role where they are asked to wear many hats. One of these is first responder to potential threats. They must also remember that most instances that warrant investigation won’t result in violence, but also be prepared in case they do. Because of the risk of false positives, responding authorities must also understand the role of human behavior when investigating a report from someone in the community. In the case of these false positives, the responding officer can improve the time it takes for the false positive to become comfortable by properly explaining why they are responding and how this response will help the public build confidence in their role as observers of their community to stay left of bang.

In the above example, it is reasonable to assume that this individual, reading for some amount of time in his car, stood out from the baseline for the area, as determined by one or more local residents. The way the person reported the incident, the way the police officer responded, and the way the individual reacted are all important. The standard should be such that all three parties trust the system to all be engaged in improving the dialogue between officer, observer, and actor, to reduce the number and impact of threatening events that affect our society.

In the example from Canada, the three primary parties involved showed themselves and steps were put into action. These three entities worked together to attempt to prevent a threat and no one was harmed or injured.   The research report from Chapman University mentions, “The researchers found that most Americans want to be vigilant, but they are unaware of what kinds of behaviors constitute precursors to terrorism.” Our work here at The CP Journal helps many different kinds of organizations develop and build a process to prevent threats, up to and including, terrorism. There are going to be instances where people pose a threat to others. Leading up to and during these instances the public will usually have the opportunity to be an active observer to stop these intentions from impacting others. The highest likelihood we have as a society to reduce the number of violent events is by working together with authorities and working together as a team to build confidence, as a community of observers, to recognize and report potential threats.