Spotting the tell-tale signs of 'emerging aggression'

Aug. 7, 2015
How identifying different behavior indicators could help stop an active shooter event

Less than two weeks after 59-year-old John Russel Houser shot and killed two people and wounded nine others before turning the gun on himself at movie theater in a Lafayette, La., a homeless man armed with pepper spray, a hatchet and pellet gun assaulted moviegoers at a theater just outside of Nashville on Wednesday injuring three. The suspect, identified as 29-year-old Vincente David Montano, was later shot and killed by police.

Much of the attention in the aftermath of these incidents has focused on physical security and the steps cinema chains could potentially implement to make their facilities safer. While the installation of metal detectors, panic alarms and additional video surveillance cameras would all undoubtedly help bolster security at the nation’s movie theaters, no technology solution is foolproof. Most security practitioners will tell you there is no replacement for security's human element to help identify potential threats, which is why it is vitally important to be aware of tell-tale warning signs attackers may exhibit before they strike.

According to John Byrnes, founder and CEO of the Center for Aggression Management, there are two different categories of aggression that people whom commit violent acts fall under: primal aggression and cognitive aggression. Primal aggression, which is characterized by the primal instincts of fight or flight and fueled by adrenaline, is seen in those persons, who driven by panic or rage; simply lose control in the moment. Cognitive aggression, on the other hand, is characterized as conscious, deliberate aggression which is intent driven. Byrnes said that both Houser and Montano fall into the category of cognitive aggressors

Primal and cognitive aggression both consist of nine different stages within which the behaviors of individuals grow increasingly depraved. Seventh stage cognitive aggressors are what Byrnes refers to as “complicit tacticians,” which are people who want certain people to die, but they are not going to kill them or put themselves in harm’s way as they want to inspire others to do so, such as Osama bin Laden. Eighth stage cognitive aggressors fall under the category of “murderer” or “combatant” which is someone who is prepared to give up their life for a cause, but intends to survive. A ninth stage cognitive aggressor, which is the highest form of cognitive aggression, are those persons who perpetrate acts of murder-suicide or terrorism.

“They go into this event knowing that they are going to die by their own hands or suicide by cop or military or whatever it might be,” explained Byrnes.  

Byrnes said the good news is that these continuums of both cognitive and primal aggression give organizations an opportunity to identify aggressive behavior from its outset if they have trained observers who can spot indicators of “emerging aggression.”     

“Each stage is a precursor to the next, each gives you the ability to get out in front and prevent the next and that’s particularly important because we know from current research that from the moment of commitment when a person pulls a weapon and starts shooting to the moment of completion when the last round is discharged is as little as five seconds,” said Byrnes. “If you’re going to react to this you’re more than likely going to step over those people slain during those first five horrific seconds. The FBI says the only way to prevent a shooter is to identify someone who is on the path to violence. We call the path to violence emerging aggression because a path to violence means you have to foresee the violence in order to evoke a response.”

While many people think a cognitive aggressors plans for violence have to be well thought out, Byrnes said that is not always the case.

“The cognitive aggressor, as we say, can be quite lethal because they become tactical and when I say tactical, most military and law enforcement people think that means well thought out. It can be very well thought out. Seung-Hui Cho chained the back of that building at Virginia Tech so he could corral more people and create a bigger event, but it can also be a not very well thought out thing,” said Byrnes. “What I mean by tactical is they’ve identified their target and they are committed to the destruction of that target.”

One of the problems many people encounter in trying to identify cognitive aggressors, according to Byrnes, is that they are often looking for the signs we would normally associate with a primal aggressor – red-faced, visibly agitated or anxious and ready to explode – which is essentially the exact opposite of how cognitive aggressors conducts themselves.

“All humans, unless they are sociopaths or psychopaths, have to disconnect from their victim. They have to depersonalize, disconnect and turn a person into an object in order to attack them,” added Byrnes. “A terrorist or a perpetrator of murder-suicide goes a step further. They disconnect from their own well-being to the point where they find a profound calm. They become steely. This is why they can kill multiple people regardless of age or gender and that’s why a terrorist can blow themselves up with their own children in the car.”

The look of these perpetrators, whose entire body language and behavior loses animation, does not change throughout the process of an attack

“They come to the scene with that look. They drive into your parking deck or parking garage with that look. They enter into your premises with that look. They walk through your doors, whether it is theater doors, workplace doors or school doors, past a receptionist possibly or someone taking tickets in the matter of a theater, etc. If people are trained as what we call aggression first observers, they will be able to identify this person. There is no way to avert this. It is a reflection of the body to this level of intention.”

Although “aggression first observers” may not be coming to a theater near you anytime soon, Byrnes said that it certainly not unfeasible for cinemas and other soft targets to consider using them.

“You could train your ticket agents. You could train people to be observers. It’s a day’s worth of training, but you can create aggression first observers,” said Byrnes. “Now, we also recommend you have a small, core group because it needs to be scalable, especially with theaters, but you have a certified aggression manager who is trained not only to identify the emergence of aggression but to engage someone with corresponding skill sets… to determine and ensure that what you have is a potential shooter. Then, of course, you need someone that can take control of this person, law enforcement or someone near enough by to engage.

Unfortunately, Byrnes believes that these types of attacks are only going to continue to occur whether it is at movie theaters or other types of venues.  

“The reality we live in is that there is not a reaction faster than an action. So, if someone comes into a theater with the intention of shooting it up, people are going to die before anybody gets there or can do anything about it,” he said.