A volte‐face in US public figure threat assessment?

Park Dietz and colleagues, in their ground breaking two 1991 papers on inappropriate communications and approaches to celebrities and members of Congress, did not comment on the mental states of those involved. However, their data, in the lengthy 1989 Dietz and Martell report to the National Institute of Justice, majored on the presence of mental illness and the importance of warning signs. Dietz and Martell now say, in a commentary on the latest FRG publication that the bulk of the Report was never published because of concerns by security agencies and that his efforts to get data on certain cases to further his research were rebuffed by the US Secret Service, which then initiated its own study.

The last reference is clearly to Fein & Vossekuil’s Exceptional Case Study, which dismissed mental illness and threats as significant factors in assassination and near‐assassination cases, choosing instead to emphasise the importance of behavioural policing methods
(Article 2). This was in spite of the high prevalence both of mental illness and of indirect threats in their sample. Fein and Vossekuil’s paper has been highly influential in US threat assessment circles. Dietz and Martell’s comments in their new article are an unequivocal rejection of this position: “Every instance of an attack on a public figure by a lone stranger for which adequate information has been made publically available has been the work of a mentally disordered person who issued one or more pre‐attach signals in the form of inappropriate letters, visits or statements…” These comments are in tune with findings of the Fixated Research Group in the United Kingdom.

They also reflect the reality on the ground in terms of threat assessment and management by the US Secret Service and the Capitol Police Threat Unit. But they are something of a slap in the face of what had, at least until recently, been the conventional wisdom in the USA for the last decade.

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