Legal support staff learns what to do if workplace violence strikes

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Discussing workplace violence and what to do about it can be frightening, so NALS Law Day presenter Michael Wiltse alleviated the tension with humor.
The first of several videos he showed the approximately 60 legal support professionals in attendance was a spoof featuring a character named Buck Savage. Based on an actual situation in Arizona, the 1980s clip showed an actor vigorously telling his audience to be observant while behind him a thief robs a store at gunpoint, dashing past him both on his way in and on his way out with the weapon clearly visible.

Wiltse’s point: always know what your “normal” surroundings are like and be alert to even minimal changes that may signal danger.

Wiltse is the Director of Public Safety and Training at Delta College, which is near Saginaw, and an adjunct professor at the criminal justice departments of both Delta College and Ferris State University in Big Rapids.

He started out as a police officer but then went to get a masters in public Administration from Saginaw Valley State University. He was originally hired at Delta College to run its police academy, but was recently moved into the public safety position.

Wiltse said that due to several high-profile cases, colleges have been increasing the amount of training on how to handle violent, threatening events on campus. “I’ve trained all my faculty and staff on, what are you going to do if a guy with a gun comes in?” Wiltse said, noting that he uses ‘guy’ and ‘he’ when speaking about workplace violence incidences because that is accurate in the vast majority of instances.

Wiltse stated that workplace and campus violence require the same types of responses.

The title of Wiltse’s talk to the NALS group reflected a summary of those responses: “Get Out — Hide Out — Take Out.”

He showed the NALS members a more serious video which depicted and discussed each of the three strategies implicit in the title. The Center for  Personal Protection and Safety produced the short film, and it featured the Center’s Jim Sporleder and Randy Spivey.

The footage, featuring actors in a very realistic recreation of a workplace incident, was very effective in getting ideas across. A long-haired, plaid-flannel-shirted man with a rifle and a handgun pushes quickly past the receptionist, who calls him by name in an attempt to slow him down; he then goes on to try to shoot as many of his former coworkers as he can.

Since pistols or rifles are an efficient way to kill or injure others at a distance while posing less of a threat to the perpetrator himself, and since they are  widely available, guns are very likely to be the weapons of choice. In fact, law enforcement officials call such workplace violence “active shooter” situations.
Both Wiltse and the film, called Shots Fired!, emphasized that before using any strategy, people must have a detailed awareness of what is going on around them. Wiltse said that it is critical for employees to get in the habit of  observing exactly what pre-incident conditions are like every time they come in to work.

Knowing what kind of background noises are likely to occur can alert people to sounds of gunshots or other out of the ordinary commotions. Sporleder and Spivey point out that a gun going off may sound like an undistinguished popping noise. But they stress that under any circumstances it is better to spring into action and be wrong than to waste valuable time debating the origin of such sounds.

Most important, people should have a good sense of where exits are and what is likely to be the clearest path to them. Obviously, the strategy of leaving the workplace completely is the best, provided it is possible. A bit of pre-incident observation may make all the difference in making an escape.

Though the video cautioned people to leave their belongings behind, Wiltse said that some items, such as car keys and cell phones, are so integral to survival that they should be taken along. He suggested putting them in the same place every time, or at the very least, knowing right where they are every minute of the day.

Those who are able to escape should take it upon themselves to notify authorities, even if they think someone else already has, but should ascertain their own safety before doing so. Wiltse cautioned that even if a cell phone call to 911 produces a busy signal, workers on the outside should keep trying, and should tell the dispatcher everything they know, as calmly as possible.

Careful observation should give people information about where the shooter is in relation to where they will have to exit, but if there is any doubt about the safety of a certain route, coworkers should move to Plan B: hiding out.

Again, keeping a level head is critical. Crawling under a desk will not help if feet stick out or clothing is still visible. Trying to assess what the hiding place might look like from the outside may require stopping for a moment and taking a deep breath.

If one or more employees find that locking themselves in a room is the best strategy, there are simple precautions to follow.

—Place a large piece of furniture behind the door as back-up for the lock;

—Turn out lights to give the illusion that no one is in the room, and, if safe, roll down blinds or shades so a shooter will not be able to see inside;
—Remain as silent as possible and turn off the ringers on cell phones and pagers;

—Assume a position that is not in a firing line with the door, in particular crouching or lying down in a corner;

—Be prepared to go on the offensive in case the lock fails. In the video, as the shooter broke through the door, a woman threw a large planter at him, which served to slow him down.

If law enforcement officers have made it on to the scene and enter with the mission of eliminating the threat, they may ask people who are in hiding places for information that will help them identify the shooter. It is important, therefore, to be as cooperative as possible, and not to assume that this is a signal to come out of hiding.

Wiltse cautioned that such police officers are likely not to know in advance who is a perpetrator and who is not. Extending one’s hands, slowly and cautiously, to show that you have no weapons is well-advised once it is evident that the people asking are from law enforcement.

The police are also not able, at that moment, to help those they find hidden. The best policy to follow is to remain in the hiding place until there is a clear verbal indication that the danger is over.

The final strategy is the one everyone would like to avoid: “taking out” the shooter, or eliminating him as a danger. This is to be undertaken only when all else has failed.

“Survivors are committed to doing whatever it takes,” Wiltse said. “They prepare themselves both mentally and emotionally and become stakeholders in their own safety and security.”

One NALS member asked  if that meant being willing to kill  the shooter. As others around her nodded their heads, she said she would have a very hard time doing that.

But Wiltse countered, “But it’s you or him. Think about your family waiting at home for you, and that it was his idea to do this, not yours.”

Saying that here is safety in numbers, Wiltse added, “Absolute resolve is critical.” If isolated groups of people are able to make plans without attracting the shooter’s attention (for example, those in a locked room), they should be as clear and precise as possible, and attack on several fronts at once.

Getting rid of the perpetrator’s weapon is a good first goal, whether by startling him and then knocking it out of his hands, or by injuring him in a way that causes him to drop them.

If law enforcement teams arrive during this, people should stay out of their way.

And what about prevention? Wiltse suggested attacking that question in two different ways. One is to set up and rehearse some of the actions that will reduce the damage such a shooter can cause.

The other is to think carefully about co-workers’ behavior. Anything that seems out of the ordinary should be reported to a superior.

In this as well as more dire circumstances, Wiltse repeated, “Trust your instincts.” He said that this is no different from what he tells his young son; if someone asks you to do something that makes you feel weird, do not do it.

At the same time, if a certain coworker is showing signs of bizarre behavior, avoid upsetting him and escalating the problems. If it is possible to get him professional help, workplace violence may be avoided entirely.

And always treat coworkers with dignity and respect. “Many times people are very frustrated just because no one has taken th time to listen to them,” Wiltse noted.

Whatever the circumstances, Wiltse said statistics indicate that giving a potential catastrophic incident some advance thought greatly increases the survival rate. People who have been through workplace violence training are “anxious rather than panicked” and much better able to recall what they have learned and rehearsed. They waste less time in denial and shock; the “survival mindset” enables them to stay calmer, always an asset, and to plan more soundly as well as to keep others calm.

As trained legal support professionals, NALS members are aware that they may take broad responsibility for handling workplace incidents. Wiltse’s presentation put them in a better position to handle them well.

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