“Shots Fired!” How One Federal Installation Uses a Proactive Team Approach to Prevent/Address Workplace Violence

Why aren’t agencies and organizations better prepared for workplace violence? The author reports on one agency that has an exceptional program in place

I have worried in multiple articles for FedSmith.com that many, perhaps most, Federal agencies are not adequately prepared to prevent workplace violence and, if it does happen, to deal with the incident in progress as well as its aftermath. (See Workplace Bullying: Psychological Violence? and Violence in the Workplace: Is Your Agency Prepared? and Pondering the Impact of Workplace Violence)

I recently conducted a one-day course I had developed on workplace violence prevention, and was extremely fortunate to have two people in the class – Barbara Viney of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Brian Klein of the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) – who could easily have traded places with me and taught the class. Barb is the EPA’s Workplace Violence Prevention Coordinator and Brian is a Human Resources (HR) Specialist who has been a key player in developing and implementing the Kennedy Space Center’s Workplace Violence Prevention Response Program (WVPRP).

Before I delve into that program, which I consider to be a “best practice,” I want to note two more recent workplace violence incidents which resulted in fatalities.  Consistent with my theme – by no means original – that workplace violence can happen anywhere, a murderous rampage took place at a beer distributorship in Manchester, Connecticut, on August 3rd.

Shortly after 7:30 a.m. that day, Omar Thornton opened fire at employees at Hartford Distributors, a Budweiser warehouse in Manchester, Connecticut.  Thornton had been called in by his employer and shown video surveillance footage of him stealing beer from the facility.  After calmly signing a letter of resignation, and not contesting the accusations against him, Thornton opened fire on coworkers at the facility; in just a few minutes, he shot and killed 8 employees, and wounded 2 others before killing himself.

After gunning down his coworkers, Thornton phoned family members and allegedly revealed his motive for the attack.  According to website Helium.com, Thornton’s girlfriend said he claimed to have been the target of racial harassment at Hartford Distributors in the days leading up to the shooting.  He told her that he complained to his superiors but nothing was done about it.  She also said there was no indication he was planning to go on a shooting spree.  Officials at Hartford Distributors denied that Thornton ever reported harassment to them.

On July 12, there was another fatal workplace violence incident, this one in Albuquerque.  In that situation, according to CBS.com, a gunman angry about a child custody dispute with his girlfriend shot her after a confrontation outside the New Mexico manufacturing plant where she works, then forced his way inside and killed two employees before turning the gun on himself.

Police identified the shooter as Robert Reza, 37, who had addresses in Rio Rancho and Albuquerque.  Four others were wounded in a rampage police said was motivated by Reza’s disgust over a domestic violence dispute involving the girlfriend, who was in critical condition but survived.  Police Chief Ray Schultz said investigators recovered a single handgun but it appeared Reza fired 20 to 25 bullets, reloading once.

My summary:  The Hartford incident appears to have been based on an employee with an unresolved grievance – whether related to his “forced resignation” or the discriminatory treatment he perceived – while the one in Albuquerque involved a domestic dispute following an employee to work, and inadvertently putting her co-workers in the line of fire as well.  Unfortunately, we have seen both of these motives play out before, sometimes, as here, with fatal consequences.

Question:  Why aren’t agencies/organizations better prepared?
I think part of the answer lies with the nature of preparing for any emergency –from terrorist threats to fire, flood, disease, tornado, hurricane, tsunami, and volcano.  A few years ago, when I was in St. Louis to conduct training and was staying at a Hilton in a room which looked directly into Busch Stadium, I witnessed a major disaster preparedness exercise which included “mock victims,” many of whom were bloodied and bandaged, emergency vehicles, doctors, nurses, and other medical staff, etc.

In my opinion, many people don’t take such drills seriously in the first place – in fact, I remember thinking, “This is interesting, but I sure wish the Cardinals were playing at home tonight” – and the more time that goes by without an incident actually occurring, the more lax we become about the threat.  Another example:  How many of us frequent fliers pay close attention to the flight attendants’ mandatory safety briefings?  Many passengers are busy reading newspapers or books, talking, daydreaming, etc.  If an emergency did occur in the air, I’m afraid that the majority of passengers, including yours truly, would be scrambling to figure out what we were supposed to do. Instead of the orderly process envisioned in the safety video, I suspect there would be chaos and panic.

Given my pessimism about agencies/organizations being prepared to deal with workplace violence and threats, I was surprised and pleased to find that the Kennedy Space Center had such a strong workplace violence prevention program.  I’ve seen several such programs in Federal agencies which looked good on paper but on closer examination were often only partially implemented, at best.  The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has published some excellent guidance on workplace violence prevention programs, such as A Manager’s Guide: Traumatic Incidents at the Workplace, which can be accessed at OPM.gov.

Another good source of workplace violence prevention information is the USDA Handbook on Workplace Violence Prevention and Response.  The latter document reflects the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s (FSIS) tragic first-hand experience with workplace violence in Los Angeles on April 28, 1998.  That day, FSIS compliance officers Jean Hillery and Tom Quadros; California special investigator Bill Shaline; and California inspector Earl Willis were shot as they worked together investigating a San Leandro, California, sausage plant.  Messrs. Quadros and Shaline died of their wounds, as did Ms. Hillery, and Mr. Willis was seriously wounded, as reported in a 10-year commemorative article authored by FSIS Administrator Al Almanza.

But the most proactive approach to workplace violence prevention I have seen in the Federal sector is the one which has been developed by the Kennedy Space Center.

“Workplace violence can only be prevented by a sensitive and trained community that has resources on-hand to intervene quickly when an ’at-risk’ person or situation is identified,” advised Mark Borsi, NASA Special Agent incharge of Security at KSC. To this end KSC, under the leadership of the Director of Human Resources, has created an organizational foundation, underpinned by a strong policy and senior management support, that includes HR, the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), and Security as the guiding forces in community education and awareness, policy development and operational
processes, and planning.  The goal is to create and maintain a system that encourages employees to willingly and quickly protect each other by reporting behavior of concern to someone who is connected to the KSC workplace violence prevention safety net.

The organization’s dedication to this challenge is demonstrated in Agency policy and procedures.  KSC’s inclusive and open, multi-disciplinary, multi-faceted strategy is reflected in the composition of its Threat Assessment Team (TAT), which includes representatives from HR, Security, Legal, affected management, Safety, Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO), EAP, and Medical. The TAT meets as soon as an at-risk situation is identified to discuss and discern the best (safest) course of actions. This often includes interviews of employees and referrals to the EAP.  The TAT can conclude that temporary removal from the workplace, referral to counseling or for fitness for duty evaluation, or other appropriate action is necessary.

Furthermore, the role of each involved organization is clearly defined. For example, while EAP provides services that “intervene to break the cycle of stress,” the Human Resources Office serves as the policy leader for Workplace Violence.  In support of these roles, the Protective Services Office is charged with controlling access to the vast range of KSC and also conducting escorted removals from the workplace. When needed, these escorted removals are accomplished in a dignified and respectful way to preserve open lines of communication and decrease stress; they routinely include a vehicle inspection to insure the continuing safety of the workplace.

Each year the KSC Workplace Violence Prevention Response Program (WVPRP) leadership, HR and security, plan and deliver training to employees to keep them sensitive as to how to recognize and report potential workplace violence so that it can be handled early. This training ranges from required video training, to small- and large-scale briefings, and actual hands-on demonstrations.  Because this training has been incrementally developed and is easily customized to different audiences, the KSC’s WVPRP training can be and has been exported to other NASA Centers and Federal agencies.

In the WVPRP training, Patti Bell and Walt Hersing of the EAP office emphasize the behavioral health aspect of employee interventions by depicting certain behaviors of concern to raise awareness in the workplace.  Fortunately, the KSC EAP has an on-site office that provides a wide variety of services to assist employees with their personal and work-life issues and assists with mediation of relationships in the workplace.  They also partner with contractor EAP resources to ensure maximum access to EAP services for employees.

Mr. Borsi added that “NASA enjoys a unique culture of facing and planning for dangerous contingencies.  In addition to its (WVPRP) program, KSC has the ability to quickly respond to workplace violence, including using National Incident Management System protocols, hostage negotiation, tactical response, media plans, and Advanced Life Support paramedic teams.”

These capabilities are not secret and the KSC community is well aware that they exist as vital tools in case other prevention efforts fail.  Another unique aspect at KSC is the large contractor workforce which is currently facing possible job losses and transition as the nation’s space mission is reshaped.  This makes the liaison and education efforts between the civil service workforce and the contractor community even more important.

Another key player in the KSC’s WVPRP program is Special Agent Linda Rhode of the NASA Protective Services Office. Ms. Rhode, who reports directly to Mr. Borsi, is the primary security subject matter expert.  Her ability to build relationships and establish trust throughout the KSC workforce has been an essential element in encouraging employees to report workplace violence incidents at an early stage.  Ms. Rhode stated that “the prevention of workplace violence depends on getting employees engaged in the program and willing to be part of the prevention team.  Our employees recognize that we are all family; they just need the reminder that families sometimes have disagreements and that those disagreements need to be addressed quickly and appropriately.”

When Director of Human Resources Tracy Anania assumed her position at KSC, one of her first initiatives was to provide the vision to develop a world-class workplace violence prevention and response program at KSC.  Shortly after Ms. Anania’s arrival, the shooting at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) happened.  This made her even more determined to
raise awareness throughout the agency and beyond.  Ms. Anania’s vision is reflected in her statement that “the safety of our workforce is the paramount concern of senior management at Kennedy Space Center.”  She has also voiced her frustration with those who say that there is nothing you can do about workplace violence incidents, saying that “I believe that with education, awareness, diligence and early intervention, we can eliminate or mitigate the impact of a large number of workplace violence threats.”

I wrote in these pages on May 30, 2007, about the incident to which Ms. Anania refers.  On April 20 of that year, a contractor at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, wrongly believing that he was about to be fired after receiving a poor performance evaluation, slipped a snub-nosed revolver through security, duct-taped a female co-worker to a chair and shot and killed his boss, David Beverly, then turned the gun on himself.

As I noted at the time, the agency spokesperson said after the incident, “Right now we’re trying to understand why this happened, how this happened. But of course we never believed this could happen here to our family and our situation.” 

Incident Update:

It took me so long to complete this article that, I’m sorry to say, there have been at least two more fatal workplace violence incidents.  Quoting in both cases from Denver Post wire services, on Friday, September 10, a female Kraft Foods plant worker in Philadelphia who had been suspended for feuding with colleagues and was escorted from the building returned minutes later with a handgun, found her foes in a break room, executed two of them with a single bullet each and critically wounded a third.  On Friday, October 22, in Cleveland, a woman was shot to death outside the manufacturing plant where she worked by a man whom she had complained about to the police.  The woman’s niece said that her aunt had broken off a relationship two years ago with the man, who also killed a co-worker during the attack.  Déjà vu, all over again!

Closing Thoughts:

I owe a great debt of gratitude to all of the Kennedy Space Center staff members who contributed to this article, including Tracy Anania, Mark Borsi, Linda Rhode, and Stacie Phillips.  I must also single out for special appreciation HR Specialist Brian Klein, who arranged my teleconference with the KSC’s workplace violence prevention team, and coordinated the team members’ input to this article.

As Special Agent Mark Borsi noted, the KSC’s workplace violence prevention training can be easily customized to fit the needs of other agencies.  One of the items Mark sent me to review was a DVD which included two outstanding video presentations.  The first one is titled “Flash Point:  Recognizing and Preventing Violence in the Workplace,” and depicts a very realistic situation in which a worker appears to be increasingly troubled and tracks what his co-workers think, say and do about it.  The second video is titled “Shots Fired – When Lightning Strikes” and is likely to make you uncomfortable. It features an angry worker coming back to the workplace with a gun and a mission. Both videos include observations from former FBI agents.  The videos clearly show significant differences in the reactions of people who have been trained on what to do in these life-and-death situations versus those who have not.

Brian told me that the KSC was considering producing its own videos but found the ones produced by The Center for Personal Protection & Safety (CPPS) to be so well done that they have used those instead.  You can view trailers for the two
videos at the CPPS website, and can obtain additional information about viewing/purchasing them by calling CPPS at 800 990-4541. For agency managers, supervisors, employees, and union representatives who may be interested in the Kennedy Space Center’s workplace violence prevention program, Brian has given me permission to publish his e-mail address in this article; it is brian.e.klein@nasa.gov.

In closing, I want to reiterate Ms. Anania’s profound statement that “the safety of our workforce is the paramount concern of senior management at Kennedy Space Center.” I could count without taking my shoes off the number of times I’ve heard
that kind of language used by a Federal executive, much less seen the deeds match the words.  I know that, as an employee, I would feel safer at the KSC than in virtually any other Federal setting I have encountered.

My theory is that every Federal workplace could be made as safe as the Kennedy Space Center. What the KSC workplace violence prevention team has done and is doing is certainly a lot of work, and not just once but continuously.  But what objective could be more worthy than keeping an agency’s/installation’s workforce safe?  Other agencies with less comprehensive programs, or none, don’t have to reinvent the wheel – they can borrow materials from the KSC’s program and adapt them as necessary to fit their needs.  My advice to agency managers:  Contact Brian if your workplace violence program could be improved.

Your employees will benefit from your efforts on their behalf.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.