The Pentagon should undertake a "unified, but modest" effort to study "biomarkers" and the potential for neurosciences and genomics research to help in understanding violent behavior, according to a panel set up to explore ways to predict violence in the wake of the 2009 massacre at Ft. Hood, TX.
However, according to the Defense Science Board task force, the Pentagon should strive not to predict such behavior -- a daunting task -- but focus instead on preventing it by adopting practices made famous by the U.S. Postal Service in its efforts to head off workplace shootings.
The Defense Science Board Task Force on Predicting Violent Behavior recommends the Pentagon's assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering lead a "unified, but modest" scientific effort into "biomarkers" and the potential for neurosciences and genomics to assist in understanding violent behavior.
"There is no panacea for stopping all targeted violence," the task force co-chairs, Larry Lynn and Judith Miller, wrote in an Aug. 14 memo summarizing the findings of their 104-page report. "Attempting to balance risks, benefits, and costs, the task force found that prevention as opposed to prediction should be the department's goal."
The report was commissioned by the Pentagon's acquisition executive in May 2011, a month after an Army major, Nidal Hasan, shot and killed 13 people and wounded 29 at a Ft. Hood clinic. The DSB was directed to develop strategies and guidelines to improve DOD's ability to identify individuals linked to military facilities who pose a threat to the work environment.
The panel recommends that the military, in the near term, adopt "threat management" techniques that largely utilize existing resources and emulate private-sector practices, as well those in use in academia but not yet employed by the Defense Department.
The task force determined that DOD policies issued in the immediate wake of the shooting -- to develop "lists of behavioral indicators" -- are not effective predictors of targeted violence. The lists were also used in considering security clearances.
"The task force also found that indicator lists are most effective in the hands of trained professionals and are not an effective substitute for a more nuanced, comprehensive set of factors developed by threat-management practitioners," the report states. "If not handled properly and by trained personnel, lists can lead to high false-positives with accompanying stigma, lack of trust, and reluctance to report."
Across the entire Defense Department, the task force found only one entity -- the Naval Criminal Investigative Service -- utilizing a best practice used by local, state and federal entities, as well as corporations and academia, to provide actionable threat assessments. So-called "threat management units" are fixtures across the nation at institutions like the New York Police Department, Boeing, Disney and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Virginia Tech. These niche operations feature a "cross-functional, multi-disciplinary team approach to assist in assessing threatening situations and developing threat abatement plans that minimize the potential risk of violence," according to the task force report.
The report recommends the defense secretary "direct a department-wide requirement for the military departments and DOD agencies to establish a multidisciplinary [threat management unit] that identifies, assesses, and responds/manages threats of targeted violence."
Each component would appoint an executive agent to manage, oversee and identify resources and training requirements. The threat-management mission, according to the report, includes observing and reporting by all levels of command; fosters a culture that does not stigmatize peer reporting; and creates appropriate limitations on information sharing.
The task force also found that military departments and defense agencies need to improve information sharing about personnel, particularly those exhibiting behaviors that could lead to violence. "There is a lack of clarity among commanders/supervisors and health-care providers, regarding access to/release of information that may be relevant to preventing targeted violence or documenting behaviors of concern," the report states. "Legal access is often authorized but policy is unclear to users."
The report recommends steps to "address information sharing restrictions."
The task force recommends the Pentagon's acquisition directorate pursue a number of actions, including exploring technologies that build "on promising starts within and outside the DOD."
"In the near term, focus on conducting cases studies, resiliency training, and analyzing physiological biomarkers," the task force study states.
The report also recommends that DOD "initiate biomarker-based measurement" efforts to add "hard data" to its databases, as well as "develop available rugged, miniaturized rapid diagnostics for battalion-level use." -- Jason Sherman