ST. LOUIS • Joe Spiess feared that an employee he disciplined might seek violent revenge, and took the concern to his boss.
“You better make sure you have your gun handy,” was the supervisor’s advice, he recalled. “The next thing I know, the guy is shooting paint balls at my window.”
That workplace was the St. Louis Police Department, where Spiess is a major. The employee, who retired, hasn’t taunted him in years. But the episode — underscored by the dismissed Los Angeles cop gone violently rogue — shows that even trained and armed police officers are vulnerable.
About five years after Spiess’ uncomfortable encounter, he was a scene commander in 2010 after an employee at ABB Inc., an electrical parts manufacturer in St. Louis, killed three co-workers and himself after he was passed over for a promotion. Spiess spent the next 2½ years studying such shootings, and he says he has discovered ways for employers to help prevent them.
The research led Spiess to focus on what he calls the “Mr. Uncomfortables” in almost every workplace or school. They exhibit signs of potential trouble long before they act. Most such people never turn to violence, he explained, but most who do erupt in violence come from their ranks.
On Friday, Spiess will offer two department-sponsored free seminars — in the morning for general employers and in the afternoon for schools — aimed at containing their own “Mr. Uncomfortables.”
Some experts and civil rights advocates say it is a path lined with patches of thin ice, because employers must guard against rash judgments and discrimination against a “Mr. Uncomfortable” who is merely benignly different, or quirky.
The American Civil Liberties of Eastern Missouri applauds the department for pursuing prevention strategies that don’t involve putting more armed personnel in schools, according to a statement issued by John Chasnoff, program director.
“We are somewhat concerned, however, by attempts to target ‘Mr. Uncomfortables,’” Chasnoff wrote. “Premature labeling of whistle-blowers and those with legitimate workplace complaints could damage the free exchange of ideas and unfairly affect the individual involved. We hope the training approaches these issues with balance.”
That’s why Spiess stresses consistency.
“People have rights, and I get that,” he said. “But there’s nothing wrong, if you have indicators, to try to explore it. It could be for the health and well-being of ‘Mr. Uncomfortable’ himself. If it’s you that has to sit next to or supervise them, is it fair to leave you in that environment? It has to be done professionally and the same way all the time, and that’s the beauty of having it in policy.”
‘MR. UNCOMFORTABLE’ FACTOR
Spiess began studying shootings in the wake of ABB, at the request of then-Chief Dan Isom. Spiess also formed JLS Consulting, a security company staffed by current and retired officers.
Chief Sam Dotson asked him to tailor training for businesses and schools in response to the school massacre at Newtown, Conn. Spiess’ company is donating its time. Each session has space for 150. So far, more than 90 have signed up for the school session and about 145 have registered for the business version.
“All of these workplace shootings have a ‘Mr. Uncomfortable’ factor involved,” Spiess said. “And most people think it’s not going to happen here, but almost every workplace has a ‘Mr. Uncomfortable.’”
Mark Zelig, a former Salt Lake City police officer turned forensic psychologist, said most mass shooters fit a profile that includes mental illness coupled with substance abuse. But mental illness alone is not a risk factor, said Zelig, who conducts risk assessments on individuals referred by schools.
Zelig urges caution not to “unintentionally stigmatize people who have mental health or social skill problems.” He explained, “When I have referrals to review an individual, half of them tell me they started getting stressed when someone identified them as a potentially violent individual.”
He said most workplace violence involved domestic violence and suicide. The most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics show deaths from violence at work have been dropping, with about 780 in 2011.
“When you take suicides and people killed at work, like police officers or taxi drivers killed by outside agents, you’re down to easily a fifth of that 780 number,” Zelig said. “And half of those are domestic-violence related.”
“What we’re all afraid of are the mass killings where someone goes berserk ... but the odds of it happening are slim.”
INACTION IS THE ENEMY
Spiess said most companies and schools that suffered such violence might have prevented it.
“Not every ‘Mr. Uncomfortable’ picks up a gun and shoots people,” he said. “But if you just ignore it and are afraid that ‘We’re going to get sued,’ that inaction can be deadly. Every workplace has a right to explore how potentially violent anyone is.”
His central theme is to form a committee that meets regularly to investigate anonymous reports about “Mr. Uncomfortables.” He suggests hiring professionals, such as Zelig, to objectively measure threats.
“If Virginia Tech would have had a committee, then (gunman Seung-Hui) Cho never would have happened,” Spiess said. “Nobody paid attention to him, and those that were, were afraid of him and didn’t have the courage to do the right thing.”
A team approach that includes every facet — from administrators to unions to security and law enforcement — keeps midlevel supervisors from having to deal with such people alone, Spiess said.
School shooters can be harder to identify, he said, because parents may be afraid to report concerns about their own children. He recommends a way for parents to report potential threats anonymously, and without fear their child will be thrown out of school.
The American Federation of Teachers favors the committee approach, saying it should focus on ensuring that mental health, substance abuse and counseling resources are available, said Darryl Alexander, the union’s director of health and safety.
“Certainly you want people to report if they are threatened with violence so it can be investigated, but you don’t want people to profile and say, ‘Well, Jack Jones, he’s been acting funny lately,’ ” Alexander said. “But if Jack actually threatens violence or assault, then definitely he should be reported to a committee or the employer.”
Spiess said his presentations would emphasize building security basics as well, such as minimizing entry points and having alarms that sound during emergencies.
“Every shooter has a plan,” he said. “So how do you intercept the plan of the shooter?”
Knowing all he knows, Spiess acknowledges that he still looks over his shoulder for the Mr. Uncomfortable in his life.
And he keeps his gun handy.