The media should know better by now

Officer Garrett Swansey – killed in Colorado Springs, CO at the Planned Parenthood mass shooting November 2015

After so many active shooter incidents in the past 24 months one would think the media covering such stories would look for a different perspective on the shooting rather than exploit frightened observers and play the gun card over and over. Anyone who listened to the audio of the radio contact between dispatchers and officers at the Planned Parenthood shooting scene now knows why officers train for these kinds of events. It is so they can move to contact with practiced expertise and focused, tactical precision to eliminate the threat and save lives. As a former police sergeant, my chief, who also served as my range instructor, asked us whether or not we could answer this call?  Now, as a psychologist, I ask readers “could you do this job”? Having only practiced for this scenario the adrenaline evoked by the training is palpable and requires both physical and mental fitness. It is not for everyone. The real thing is a hundred time more intense. Only a few intrepid officers answer this call and risk it all for people they do not know. Does anyone think this training is not needed?

Events like this are no longer uncommon in spite of the plaintiff cry of U.S. President Barack Obama.  Officers must continue training in defense of these incidents and other terrorist threats.  America can’t sit back on the ongoing issue of gun violence: “This is not normal. We can not let this become normal.” according to a White House tweet vaguely attributed to President Obama. Threats made by domestic and foreign terrorists will continue for the foreseeable future and defense of these horrific events requires shared intelligence, ongoing training and updated equipment for the new normal. The American public should not fear or mistrust their police officers.

Violent threats toward soft targets across America require surveillance and manpower 24 hours a day. This happens in a climate of mistrust in law enforcement and dubiety in officer tactics. The gun in this case did not kill Officer Garrett Swansey and two others. It was allegedly committed by 57-year old Robert Dear, a drifter.  Dear has been arrested and his motive for the killings may eventually become known. More typically, active shooter incidents such as this result in the death of the shooter by suicide. Arguably, the motive for the terminal event remains a mystery when there is no opportunity to interview the perpetrator and understand motive. It is known that exposure to early childhood violence may yield red flag clues in cases of terminal rage (Sefton, 2013).

“We’re still pretty freaked out,”Denise Speller, manager at a nearby haircut salon, said by phone after the recent Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs. “We can’t stop shaking. For now we’re stuck back here not knowing.” This is the prototypic response of any bystander who is caught in the crossfire of an active shooter scenario – but they are hunkered down able to text message their families, speak with the media, or update their status on social media. Outside observers frequently express their fear at observing officer tactics and violent protocols needed to undermine those with murderous intentions.  Sadly, the first team of three officers had no chance to do this and one heroic officer lost his life as he and two other brave police officers raced to confront the shooter and took fire almost at once.  UCC Police Officer was struck and killed by an AK-47 high impact round as he moved toward the sound of gunfire.

The media covering these events love the kind of sensational demonstration of fear that compel us to watch the live news broadcast. They rarely go beyond the sensational images into the immediate here-and-now bravery demonstrated by courageous police officers who go beyond the blue line to protect the lives of innocents. “Red flag indicators are often demonstrated in behaviors that are observable and measurable sometimes for weeks and months before the terminal event” (Sefton, 2015). More needs to be done to provide heroic police officers the training, equipment, and support they need to bring these events to a nonviolent end.  If the media wish to offer something new why, not build a bridge between those who would protest police practices and those on the other side of the thin blue line.


Sefton, M. (2013). Domestic violence homicide. Blog post: Blog post taken 11-29-15.

Sefton, M. (2015). Unappreciated Rage: The dissembling impact of those living at the margins. Blog post: Taken 11-28-2015.

Quiet leadership is by example

WESTBOROUGH, MA October 10, 2015 Sitting on a plane headed to Washington DC for the weekend.  We are diverted to a parking spot between the take off runway and the active arrival strip – right between the numbers.  We are instructed to relax as there is a weather system that prevents us from heading toward our destination.  Little else is known and the  pilot seems curt when he provides us updates.  “As soon as they let us know we will pass it along,” he snips. He is irritable but I wonder if there is something more?   I hate flying.

I can think of several ways this pilot may have informed the flying public as to the reason or reasons we are not taking off. Readers of this blog should know that honesty breeds trust.

Law Enforcement – Mental Health Collaboration

November 28, 2015 In a recent post the issue of mental illness and police use of force has been the subject of scrutiny.  The pairing of police officers and mental health counselors is becoming a compelling option in some departments.  In a previous blog post I published an essay ostensibly denouncing the utility of these patrols in part because it presents a greater level of risk to police officers, ride-along psychotherapists, and the community at large (Sefton, 2015)

Over 100 persons with known mental illness were the victim of lethal force following a suicide by cop scenario or some other violent encounter resulting in the rapid escalation of the use of force continuum. Police officers train for these situations and are expected to meet force with force.  These encounters sometimes end up in a lethal force standoff where split second decisions can wind up in a deadly outcome.  As quickly as encounters may escalate, police are trained to de-escalate their use of force as the situation dictates.  The use of force must be fluid and officers in the field are expected to modulate the force they apply to the demands of the situation and be ready to respond to changing threat levels.

The current population of jail inmates is said to have a higher percentage of people suffering with mental illness than ever before.  Since the early 1970’s an effort has been made to deinstitutionalize those with severe mental illness leaving many to flounder in the streets.  The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill believe as many as 20 to 40 percent of prison inmates may have severe mental illness and may not be receiving the needed treatment to allow them to rehabilitate.

Police are increasingly linking up with mental health agencies as a way of diverting mentally ill person’s from jails into treatment for their emotional affliction. This is necessary to free police to serve the public interest more efficiently and safely. Treatment options are quite limited especially in rural communities who may be underserved by specialists in psychiatric emergencies.

British Psychological Society (BPS) photo

Police in Augusta, Maine have paired with crisis counselors two nights per week in order to provide support and expertise to police in the handling of mentally ill suspects with emphasis on de-escalating and diverting subjects from jail. Larger agencies routinely interface with mental health experts.  Courts across the country have in-house clinics that can provide up to date assessments of persons with suspected mental illness or risk for suicide and homicide.

In Massachusetts many smaller police agencies must pay overtime for police officers to sit in hospitals or outside of jail cells watching a mentally ill person who has been arrested.  Specifically, if a police officer arrests a person with a known history of suicidal ideation it has been policy among many agencies to provide an officer to monitor the prisoner to assure for a safe transfer to court. This is very expensive for small departments and takes a police officer off the road sometimes for 48 hours until the prisoner can be brought before a judge. Coupled with a high prevalence of cases of substance abuse and the growing menace of opioid addiction, police officers have their hands full with cases in which changes in mental status add to the complexity of decision-making and breadth of alternative dispositions.

This author was employed in an agency that generally deployed a single officer on duty.  When a mentally ill person was arrested the agency was forced to call in off duty personnel to transport and supervise the prisoner to assure for his or her safety.  This policy was implemented in any case of arrest whenever a person has ever had a documented history of depression with suicidal statements.  Across Massachusetts police dispatchers have access to a database of names of individuals with documented history of police interaction while mentally ill. This affords the police a heads up when a call goes out involving persons with a proclivity for suicidal behavior.  This protocol was not necessary and offered no help whatsoever to the person under arrest.  It resulted in emotionally vulnerable persons being held in custody longer than necessary out of fear that once released they would be at high risk of suicide and leave the police department liable and open to litigation.

The myths associated with mental illness – especially in the police service are abundant. For example, here in Massachusetts anyone arrested with a known history of suicidal threats needed to be watched while in custody – sometimes for one or two days until they could be brought before a judge. The question of suicidal risk should be made by psychologists and psychiatrists familiar with emergency mental health and crisis intervention.  Police officers are inherently apprehensive about legal action being brought against individual officers for decisions made because of a lack of understanding and training in dealing with those in crisis. District court judges have no greater training in suicide assessment and prevention than the cop on the beat and the decision about suicidal risk should not be left to them.  The police should turn to the experts whenever the question of risk for suicide arises and once evaluated the disposition may be straight forward gradually reducing the myths associated with this difficult population.

I agree with calls for added training for police officers in dealing with the mentally ill as a way of eliminating the myths that obfuscate decision-making and risk officer safety.  Agencies are making greater efforts to divert the mentally ill away from jails and the legal system whenever possible.  But for diversion to work well the city and county need to provide treatment programs at each point a mentally ill person comes into contact with the criminal justice system – from interactions with cops all the way through the courts, according to an NPR-Kaiser Health News report in July 2015. Our current system of liaison between mental health and law enforcement must be forged by greater cooperation and mutual understanding of the needs of those suffering from emotional illness such as depression, PTSD, and now a growing population of the addictions including alcohol and prescription pain killers.

“To say that it is because they lack training in techniques of crisis de-escalation is short sighted” Sefton 2015

WESTBOROUGH, MA  October 28, 2015 “To say that it is because they lack training in techniques of crisis de-escalation that some deaths may have been prevented is unfair and short sighted.” This quote was first published in the summer 2015 when people (perhaps in the media) first started calling for police officer training in mental health awareness and de-escalation training for police officers. One source actually suggested providing more training in mental health de-escalation and less training in the use of force – including firearms. Some wrongly believe that this “sensitivity training” will reduce the number of officer involved shootings with those who are known to be mentally ill.  Unfortunately police shootings of mentally ill suspects has been on the rise in the past 12-18 months.  Yet the use of force in police work continues to enter the collective consciousness when images of police officers acting aggressively toward defiant high school student go viral on social media.

SRO aggression
School Resource Officer take down of resistant student from posted You Tube video

Arguably, when the police are called to keep the peace or investigate a violent person call they are required to meet this threat with heightened vigilance for personal and citizen safety.  When a violent person is encountered the use of force continuum comes into play.  In the case of the Columbia, SC high school student who was aggressively choked and slammed to the floor while seated at her desk, the school resource officer was rightfully fired. The student posed no immediate threat such that hands on tactics were required to control a menacing suspect. In this case, the student was angry at being told she needed to put away her cell phone and was defiant to teacher direction. The police were called to the classroom as a show of force when neither the teacher nor the administrator could redirect her behavior.

If the violent person is actively aggressive or menacing with threat of lethal injury to the police or others than there is unlikely going to be any successful de-escalation until the threat of lethal force is eliminated.  If the violent person responds to officer directives to cease and desist all violent action and submit to being taken into protective custody or arrest – only then can mental health assessment be initiated. At the moment of crisis the need for public safety in all violent situations supersedes the individual need for care of a mentally ill person.  In the case of the South Carolina high school student no such threat existed but non-physical tactics were ineffectively deployed. The officer may have been able to diffuse the situation with empathy, understanding, and firm authority. The arrest could not be made without a higher degree of force for an actively resistant student that first punched the police officer.

Sefton, M. (2015) Blog post taken 10-28-2015

At what point should someone be held: domestic violence and no bail holds?

The Duty to Warn

WESTBOROUGH, MA  September 14, 2015 — When is it important to protect the safety of families?  “Police are quick to say that the perpetrator had no prior criminal history perhaps in an effort to circumvent the obvious outrage evoked by the system of bail in Maine that releases violent abusers over and over again” (Sefton, 2013). There are points when pre-incident indicators scream for containment of violators.  Relationship behavior should be considered – especially when relationship violence is apparent in case after case.  Violent relationship behavior should be tracked like the sex offender registry – when a man has stay away orders from two or three female partners at one time it becomes a societal “duty to warn” potential victims.  People need to pay attention to risk factors and recurring abuse. By having an intimate partner registry police are able to better assess the proclivity for violence among those arrested for DV.

The 2011 Maine case referenced above is reminiscent of the 2011 domestic violence homicide in Dexter, ME in too many ways.  Lake had twice been released on bail before murdering his family.  The medical autopsy concluded that “in spite of psychological counseling (the state) failed to appreciate the degree of anger and violence in the perpetrator in the Dexter homicide” (Sefton, 2013).

Michael Sefton, Ph.D.


Sefton, M. (2013) Blog post: Taken Sept 14, 2105

Unappreciated Rage: The Dissembling Impact of those living in the Margins

Alison Parker interviewing Vicki Gardner of Franklin County area Chamber of Commerce (Photo taken from CNN)

WESTBOROUGH, MA August 27, 2015  The killing of television reporter Alison Parker and Photographer Adam Ward both of WDBJ in Roanoke, VA and wounding of Vicki Gardner, the person being interviewed, raises the bar for the specter of workplace violence. Experts will be analyzing this sequence of behaviors for clues as to how best to keep businesses safe from disgruntled former employees.  “Like dozens of mass killers before him, the shooter embodied a deadly mix of resentment, delusion, and thwarted aspiration” according to Sarah Kaplan (Washington Post, August 27, 2015). The live twitter posts, videotaping the shooting, and horrific execution of the victims by Vester Flanagan on live television will be a specter for years to come. Just as important may be the analysis of Mr. Flangan’s mental status in the months and days leading up to the terminal event.  Nothing has been said about any relationships Flanagan may have had that provided support, understood his torment and brought him pleasure.  Without human contact the torment of living in the margins adds to the emotional fugue sometimes felt by those who feel persecuted. One cannot say just how many events like this one may have been averted simply by having meaningful, intact relationships.

Red flag indicators are often demonstrated in behaviors that are observable and measurable sometimes for weeks and months before the terminal event.  Flanagan exhibited the signs of enduring anger and resentment over perceived prejudice. Arguably, he brought himself into conflict with colleagues by being demanding.  His employer made an effort to provide mentoring and internal “job” counseling as much as he needed – finally referring him to the employee assistance program for mental health counseling.

“The psychological autopsy is a detailed analysis of the pre-incident emotional comportment and behavior of the violent decedent although this is rarely done” according to Michael Sefton, Ph.D.(Sefton, 2013).

It is a single case study initiated to analyze the specific sequence of events that proceed a suicide in an effort to understand the motives and triggers to the death. If ever a case were in need of this type of analysis, a psychological autopsy of Vester Flanagan, AKA Bryce Williams, may provide clues as to the red flags that were raised that may have been points of contact for police and mental health experts to intervene.  These points of contact are those initial signs of distress that authorities must have to provide stopping and containment of Flanagan before he was able to follow through with his plans.  In May, 2014, Elliot Rodger, 22 posted a You Tube video declaring his intention to slaughter “those with a good life”.  This occurred in Santa Barbara, CA, where his murderous rampage was posted using social media sites as a prequel to the killing of 6 college students including his two room mates – one of whom he stabbed 94 times.


Stopping points are the first signs of danger that may have been present as early as 2000 in Flanagan.  He had been fired by at least two television outlets because he was brash and difficulty to work with, according to human resource sources now being discussed. These are stopping points. The perpetrator in the Santa Barbara slaying planned the rampage for over a year and was receiving mental health intervention. In the end, Flanagan was escorted out of a newsroom in 2011 by police after being terminated for having a ‘major tantrum’ for being referred for mental health treatment. The television station was on lock down and yet Flanagan made threats as he left his job for the last time.

So much has been published about the “live tweets” left by Vester Flanagan posted while on the run. His use of social media exemplifies the planning and execution of a version of retribution never previously seen before. The posted video was surreal in its abject callousness. “The videos got out widely, forging a new path for nihilists to gain a moment in the media spotlight: an example that, given its success at garnering wide publicity, will most likely be followed by others” said Farhad Manjoo, NY Times, August 27.

It is now known that Flanagan identified with Virginia Tech mass killer Seung-Hui Cho who wrote a profanity laden manifesto blaming everyone for their maltreatment of him that sounded paranoid and vindictive and he was able to send the videotaped diatribe to a news agency.  We can expect an uptick in the outrageous expose of violence as those who are so marginalized in society grow more detached and the festering of their plight becomes realized in the posts they leave behind.

Sefton, M. (2103) Blog post Taken August 27, 2015.

Slattery, D. (2014) New York Daily News,

Calling for De-escalation Training

WESTBOROUGH, MA  August 22, 2015 The call for police training in de-escalation for persons who are menacing with guns, knives, or bombs is patently unattainable and wantonly dangerous to everyone. Those who call for “more training in mental health counseling and less training in the use of firearms” or use of force continuum have never been faced with the life or death conundrum – kill or be killed. The split second it takes to respond to a threat in defense of oneself or another person will not permit time to introduce strategies for de-escalation.  In the time it takes to find ‘just the right words’ to engage the subject who is waving a firearm and shouting that “anyone who comes close will be shot,” people will die – including members of the police who are trained and responsible for calls like this. That being said, the use of force continuum serves as a template upon which police officers first judge their response to calls for service.  Officers are trained to give clear commands that are geared toward de-escalating the scenario with a goal of compliance.  If the subjects complies with officer commands there will be no force utilized or needed to end a high risk call such as the one described.

A witness talks with police at a Manhattan crime scene, Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in New York, after a man apparently wielding a hammer was shot and wounded by police. The shooting took place shortly after 10 a.m., blocks from Madison Square Garden and Penn Station. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
PHOTO (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

People are asking for added training for law enforcement personnel in mental health awareness. Those individuals wrongly believe that having better “people” skills will reduce the number of officer involved shootings. It is incumbent on society – not the police service to provide care for those who are mentally ill.  Unfortunately, there are too few options for those suffering with emotional affliction.  It does not matter that Mr. Jones is depressed over an impending divorce if he is engaged in lethal violence toward his wife and children. Once the threat of armed violence is reduced or eliminated when Jones is taken into custody than police officers can offer a sympathetic ear and refer him for psychotherapy – something he surely needs.

The essential element in officer involved shootings is noncompliance to police commands by the subject of police scrutiny. It is the actions of the subject that direct officer behavior. If those actions are coupled with the threat of imminent, life threatening harm only then is a law enforcement officer justified in using lethal force. As long as that threat exists, no one is safe and police officers must adhere to the established use of force continuum that allows for the use of lethal force when an officer is met with the threat of lethal violence.

The incidence of violence against the police is far greater than police acting violently against a citizen.  Ask any police officer and they will tell you that police encounter menacing and violent citizens on a daily basis and rarely are required to use lethal violence. Why?  Most officers are already highly skilled at using their verbal skills to de-escalate a violent perpetrator without using lethal force – even when a higher level of force may have been warranted. Excessive alcohol and drug use coupled with the lack of clinical infrastructure to provide treatment are the underpinnings of violence – especially in the setting of unemployment and abject poverty.