Understanding And Dealing With The Risk Of Violence

Revised: May 21, 2014


There are times when many of us become aware of high risk situations and are concerned for our safety or the safety of others. The possibility of violence should not be ignored or minimized. Recognizing the risk of violence is easier when you can identify the basic risk factors and the underlying motivation for violence. Communication of your concerns in terms of these risk factors can help insure an appropriate response from private security, law enforcement or health care professionals.

Why do People Become Violent?

Several thousand articles and books have been written about the cause and prevention of violence. For practical purposes and not theory, there are thirteen general reasons why people become violent. Recognizing these reasons can help you understand and deal with the risk of violence.

  • To Punish others: The purpose of violent behavior is to obtain justice or revenge, or is the result of a victim’s rage.
  • Freedom: Violence is the result of a threat to or loss of freedom.
  • Control: Violent acts are the result of a fear of losing control or anger over losing control.
  • Carry-over: Further violent behavior is the result of ongoing aggression or violence at the moment.
  • Contempt or Sadism: Violence is an expression of contempt or the behavior of a sadistic personality.
  • Blaming, Acting out: Violence is the result of blaming others or taking our own problems out on others.
  • Image, Status, Role, Reputation: Violence is a method to defend, change, or establish a reputation with others.
  • Protection, Survival Reaction: Violence is considered a means to protect one’s self, property, family, or friends.
  • Threat reduction, Aggressive precaution: Violent or threatening behavior is seen as a means to warn others and reduce the risk of violence.
  • Self-punishment; Guilt relief: Becoming violent results in a violent response from others that meets a desire to be punished or to reduce feelings of guilt.
  • Civil or rationalized disobedience: Violent behavior is a form of protest which can serve a social purpose, or is rationalized to serve a purpose but in fact serves no substantial social purpose.
  • Exposure to violence and diffusion of individual responsibility (wilding): Exposure to a group of violent people creates a perception that violence may be justified and that the individual is not going to be singled out for their own violent behavior.
  • Mental illness or medical condition: Violent behavior is the result of impaired thinking and judgment or strange and bizarre beliefs that are caused by illness, disease, drugs, toxic chemicals, or a severe medical problem.

Critical Risk Factors

  • Has the person made a veiled or direct threat, or been violent recently?
  • Has the person implied or suggested their own suicide or death would be a solution?
  • Has the person made any destructive or threatening statements?
  • Has the person intentionally frightened someone?
  • Has the person been stalking or following people?
  • Is the person preoccupied or dwelling on injustices or unrealistic fears?
  • Does the person have a history of anger problems bordering on violent behavior?
  • Has the person been increasingly angry, aggressive or violent over time?
  • Has their behavior or any threats become increasingly lethal?
  • Has the person made statements or implied they might have a plan?
  • Has the person made statements or implied they might have an opportunities?
  • Has the person made statements or implied they might have identified a  target?
  • Has the person made statements or implied they might already have a weapon (e.g. rifles, shotguns, pistols, sharps, blunts, explosives)?
  • Has the person brought a weapon (e.g. gun, combustable fuel, large knife, sharps, blunts, etc..) to a place or to a situation that is inappropriate (e.g. work, school, church, etc...)

Contributing Risk Factors

  • Does or has the person used alcohol or other drugs that are especially associated with violent behavior such as alcohol, tranquilizers, cocaine, amphetamines or PCP?
  • Has there been a domestic or relationship dispute in which one feels rejected and another person fears for their safety or the safety of others?
  • Does the person have any history of self-destructive or self-harming behavior?
  • Does the person have any history of suicidal thinking, statements or behavior?
  • Does the person have a history of a mental disorder such as depression, obsession, schizophrenia, manic-depression (bipolar), dementia, or brain injury?
  • Does the person have an unstable or untreated mental illness?
  • Does the person have unstable health or medical problems?
  • Is the person isolating, withdrawn or acting in a way that is unusual or strange?
  • Does the person need or have they stopped taking medications necessary for treatment of a mental illness or other medical condition?
  • Has the person’s level of self-care, hygiene or level of organization declined?
  • Has the person ever been hospitalized for mental illness and dangerous behavior?
  • Does the person have a history of relationships that are unsatisfying, failed or that involved conflicts in which the person feels abandoned, blamed, persecuted or treated unfairly?
  • Is the person blaming authorities, an employee, management, the employer, the organization or others?
  • Has the person lost, or could they lose their home, social support, family, friends, or means of providing for their basic needs and responsibilities?
  • Does communication or efforts to resolve problems with the person lead to denial, confusion, mood swings, frustration, conflict, aggression or threats?
  • Has the person or will the person experience civil or criminal charges; a loss or change in employment; marital, family or parental status (e.g. probation, suspension, termination, warrants, arrest, loss of child custody, or death of a spouse or family member)
  • Does the person seem to lack the ability or the resources to solve their problems?
  • Does the person seem overwhelmed, detached, or emotionally numb to their situation?
  • Does the person have access to weapons (e.g. rifles, shotguns, pistols, sharps, blunts, explosives)?
  • Does the person have a history of involvement, preoccupation or obsession with weapons?

Dealing With The Risk of Violence

Immediate Danger: When there is violence, or an immediate danger of violence, it is always appropriate to contact the police, sheriff's department or call 911 for immediate help. It is important to follow the instructions given to you by law enforcement and 911 - especially when there is a life threatening danger. If you are unable to call 911, ask somebody to call for you. If you are at risk and you are in a building that has security or safety officers, call them or ask someone to contact them for you. Avoid being alone or in areas in which you could be surprised and could not easily escape.

Non-immediate Danger: There are three steps that will help you deal with the risk of interpersonal violence.

  • Identify the risk factors and discuss these with people who can be supportive and offer constructive advice.
  • Report violent or threatening behavior to proper authorities.
  • Prevent violence by taking appropriate actions.

Actions That Reduce The Risk Of Harm Or Future Violence

  • Seek an evaluation and advice from a qualified mental health professional or crisis intervention specialist if there are any critical risk factors. 
  • Review and familiarize yourself with the material on this web site that pertains to Crisis Intervention.
  • Seek counseling or therapy for any emotional problems or difficulties associated with angry or violent behavior from a qualified mental health professional.
  • Evaluate any alcohol and other drug use and treat as recommended by a qualified professional.
  • Encourage a medical evaluation and treatment for any mental illness or other medical condition requiring medication or medical treatment.
  • If appropriate, consider enrolling and participating in an educational or skills training group that will improve communication and interpersonal skills (e.g. parenting skills, communication, divorce adjustment, assertiveness training, conflict resolution, outdoor and residential program, or strategies to diffuse angry, aggressive and violent behavior).
  • Develop a plan that will minimize and limit all communication that usually leads to conflict, aggression or violence and take steps to resolve problems calmly. Establish a plan that supports communication that does not increase the risk of violence and will support actions that reduce the risk of violence.
  • Insure your own safety and provide for your basic emotional and physical needs while allowing the other person to do the same.
  • If there is physical or sexual abuse, seek advice and further investigation from law enforcement or an attorney who has experience dealing with interpersonal violence especially when violent or homicidal threats have been made. If appropriate, keep records of all contact, conversations and threats made by the person including dates, times and witnesses.
  • If appropriate, enroll in a personal safety and self-defense course. Information regarding these courses can usually be obtained through local telephone crisis services, health care facilities or through the police or sheriff's department.

For more information: www.OregonCounseling.Org

Additional Resources

Youth Violence Risk Questionnaire

Characteristics And Behavior Associated With Violent and Suicidal Behavior

Understanding And Dealing With The Risk Of Suicide

Youth At Risk Screening Questionnaire

Attack Risk: An article for law enforcement.