Preventing a massacre like the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday is at the core of a special education program taught to members of the Philadelphia Police Department.
Called Threat Assessment, the training class analyzes real-world scenarios that happen in Philadelphia and across the country, to help officers key into threatening behavior and hopefully intervene before tragedy occurs.
“This threat assessment class looks at everything from interpersonal violence, domestic violence to workplace violence, school-place violence, all the way up to Homeland Security issues,” says instructor Sgt. Matt Veasey.
As part of the training, participants are taught not to focus on a suspect’s single act, but take a bird’s-eye view of the situation to see whether a small fight could grow into a major crime.
“Look at the subject, look at the target, look at the environment that they’re in, find out what the precipitating events are and that’s kinda where you want to start,” he said. “You look at where the subject is along what’s been established [as a] pathway to violence and where they are on that path.”
As part of that approach, instructors remind police to not focus on who is or is not a violent person. Sgt. Veasey says just because a person doesn’t appear to be violent, doesn’t mean they won’t commit a crime.
“You might have somebody else who’s a little docile, parently school teacher…and when they go home they’re doing who knows what of that's deviant or that's of a violent nature," he said. "It’s more about actions, words…Are they tending towards violence?"
One area the officers are told to increase their focus on is social media where potential criminals are leaving clues to the crimes they intend to commit.
“They’re leaking their feelings and thoughts and ideations, sometimes direct threats, out there. More than anybody, kids are doing this,” he said. “You’ll find anything from jumping somebody to gang fights to flash mobs to flash robs…all the way up to school shootings.”
In the past, doers may have told only friends or co-workers, but now, with the use of social networks, they’re expanding the audience and that allows police to possibly intervene before it’s too late, Sgt. Veasey says.
“We want to try and intervene in these situations as possible to try and stop an attack. But also with some of these people, depending on the situation, we might be able to save them…from themselves. Turn them around, get them some counseling.”
Sgt. Veasey, a 23 year veteran of the force, is one of 15 members of the department’s Advanced Training Unit which instructs each and every one of the force’s 6,600 officers – from rookies to the top brass.
The unit teaches at least four different classes a year, using curriculum developed by state commissioners, focusing on a range topics from recent changes to laws to first aid to emergency vehicle operation. Officers are required to attend and pass class tests to remain certified in the state.
Instructors also develop additional classes on their own at the request of the department officials – like suicide prevention after an uptick in police officers taking their own lives a few years ago.
"We teach officers how to handle themselves against other people…but how do you protect yourself against yourself?” he said. “We also want them to be able to see it in their partners, co-workers."
While people might think get most of their training in the academy and on the street, Sgt. Veasey says that’s not so and programs like he’s teaching only strengthen the department.
"It’s not like you turn them out of the academy and then say ‘Go to it’ and then you learn the school of hard knocks on the street. They’re constantly being educated,” Sgt. Veasey said. “The more officers we have that are more well-educated, I think it’s going to make the department better going forward."