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by Marisa R. Randazzo, Ph.D. & Gene Deisinger, Ph.D.

Let’s face it, security can be big business — and that means it can attract some vendors who aren’t all that they claim to be.  After mass shootings, we have seen unqualified folks come out of the woodwork and announce that they are “experts” in one security area or another.  This is certainly true in the area of behavioral threat assessment and threat management.

Businesses, educational institutions, government agencies, and high-profile individuals may look to hire a behavioral threat assessment consultant when they are faced with a death threat, a stalking situation, or some other disturbing behavior.  They may seek out threat assessment training if they want to learn how to respond appropriately to threats and troubling behavior – or if they are looking to start a threat assessment team.  Threat assessment consultants and instructors are hired for their ability to evaluate threats and craft strategies to effectively reduce or minimize the risk…and in the case of training, their ability to teach others to do the same.

But how can you tell whether your threat assessment consultant or instructor is truly qualified?  Here are 5 questions to ask — ideally before you hire a consultant or sign up for a course:

1. “How much direct experience do you have in investigating, evaluating, and/or managing individual threat cases?”  While there is no hard and fast rule, we think that it takes a good 7-10 years of experience working on threat cases (depending on the level of direct involvement) before a person has truly developed a level of expertise in threat assessment and management.  Preferably they should have received all, or at least some, of their experience from a structured work setting such as a law enforcement agency, security service, forensic mental health program, or established campus or workplace threat assessment program where they could learn from others with more experience in the field.  Ideally, at least some of the consultant’s /instructor’s experience should be directly relevant to your environment – meaning that if you are concerned about workplace threats, your consultant’s direct experience comes at least in part from workplace threat cases .  As with any potential hire, check your would-be consultant’s or instructor’s claims about experience by calling references and asking around about their reputation.

2. “Give me examples of the different types of cases you have handled, and what you found that worked effectively to address some of those situations.”  What you are looking for is a broad range of experience and the ability to offer details on some specific situations or cases.  A good threat assessment consultant (or instructor) should be able to describe their involvement on a wide array of cases, including threats of harm to others, harm to self, stalking (cyber- or regular), harassment, and others.  A good threat assessment consultant should also be able to provide specific examples of interventions or case management strategies they put into place that worked to reduce risk or improve the overall safety of the situation.  Beware of a consultant or instructor who cannot provide some specific examples – or who hides behind claims of privacy instead of answering this question.  There is no need for them to name names — but they should at least be able to share with you the sanitized facts of some cases and how the situations were resolved.   Threat assessment consultants with sufficient case experience always have a few good stories to tell – about cases that fascinated them or solutions that worked particularly well.

3. “Tell me about your most challenging case, or about an intervention that did not work well and what you did to resolve that situation?”  Qualified threat assessment consultants and instructors often get to be good because they have learned from their experiences — good and bad — throughout their career.  Their answer should tell you how the consultant has learned from his or her mistakes and what they ultimately did to fix a particular problem.  It will also tell you how creative or resourceful they are when faced with a challenging problem.  Beware of any threat assessment consultant or instructor who claims never to have made a mistake.  Either they don’t have as much experience as they are claiming – or they are not being truthful in their response.

4. “What will your references say is your greatest strength?  Your biggest weakness?”  There is no one “right” answer to these questions, but the consultant’s answers will give you some insight into how well-suited they may be for your particular needs.  For example, a consultant who writes lengthy reports and takes months to do so may not be well-suited for an operationally-focused organization that needs to make decisions quickly.  A consultant who uses a lot of jargon may sound impressive but may not be able to translate their expertise into information or recommendations you can actually use.

5. “Who can verify your credentials?”  Although it takes some additional time, we strongly recommend asking for – and then checking with – at least two references provided by the consultant or instructor.  A reference who includes qualifiers in their commentary (e.g. “usually good; “basically offered helpful advice;” “generally responsive to our requests”) should be questioned a bit further on negatives or instances of problems with the consultant.  We also recommend verifying claims about education – what degrees the consultant or instructor says they have and from where.  We know of some consultants who introduce themselves as “Dr.” but never earned a degree that would allow them to use that title.  A quick call to the institution where the consultant claims to have gotten their degree will let you know for sure.

Above all, keep in mind that a threat assessment consultant is someone you may have to hire to help you handle a potentially dangerous or even-life threatening situation.  It is important to take time to vet them as thoroughly as possible – ideally before a crisis arises.  Identifying and screening potential consultants before you are faced with an imminent situation will allow you sufficient time to verify claims and check with references.  If a crisis eventually occurs, you’ll be able to secure the well-qualified help you need quickly and confidently.