Violence struck at the heart of the Arizona legal community this summer. Over two days in early June, gunshots rang out at a law firm and the offices of two mental health professionals who often serve as court witnesses. For several days while the shooter remained at large, legal workplaces in Phoenix, Scottsdale, and surrounding areas were wracked with fear they might be next.
The crime spree ended at a hotel, where the killer fired several rounds at police before turning the gun on himself. The final death toll was seven, including the shooter. His targets apparently were lawyers and mental health professionals who had been involved in his divorce and child custody case several years earlier. His victims included two paralegals who were the only employees left in the law office on a Friday afternoon and a psychologist who had the misfortune of renting office space from a counselor involved in the case.
Lessons from the Aftermath
In the days and weeks that followed these tragic events, several lawyer groups published suggested checklists and presented programs on steps that could be taken to address violence in the legal workplace. Here’s a summary of some of the best advice generated by this tragedy, all of which is applicable to any workplace.
(1) Watch for warning signs. It’s far better to prevent an active shooter situation from ever occurring than to have to deal with one. The threat could appear out of the blue, at random. Sometimes, however, the threat comes from someone in your workforce or one of their family members. Potential signs of trouble include increased use of alcohol, unexplained absences, vague complaints, depression, withdrawal, mood swings, and talk about weapons or violence. Train supervisors to watch for such warning signs and to alert HR when they appear. That will give HR an opportunity to make sure the troubled employee knows about resources available, perhaps through your employee assistance program or in the community.
(2) Run. Hide. Fight. When an active shooter is in the vicinity, those are the only three options, listed in order of preference. If escape is available, take it. That means every workplace should have evacuation procedures in place. If escape is not available, hide in areas out of the shooter’s view and block entry to the hiding place by locking doors and erecting barricades. As a last resort and when in imminent danger, act with physical aggression toward the shooter, throwing things in hopes of gaining time to run and hide.
(3) Conduct drills. Experts recommend having active shooter drills in the workplace to enforce the run/hide/fight options and when they should be employed. As with any human endeavor, we have a better chance of remaining calm and performing well if we have practiced the behaviors before we actually have to employ them in an emergency setting. Conduct a debrief after every drill. That will help you identify the weaknesses in your procedures so you can improve them for the next drill Ã¢â‚¬â€¢ or for when it’s not a drill.
(4) Know what to do when help arrives. When law enforcement comes to an active shooter scene, anything that moves is potentially a threat to the officers and, thus, a potential target for a defensive shooting. Train employees and conduct drills on how to signal they are innocent bystanders, not bad actors. Everyone should remain calm and follow instructions. Do not hold any items in your hands. Put down bags and jackets. Raise your hands above your head, spread your fingers, and keep your hands visible at all times. Avoid quick movements, pointing, screaming, or yelling.
(5) Know what officers want to know. While employees should avoid distracting first responders by asking for help or direction, there is key information they should provide if they have it. Police will want to know the location and number of the shooters, their physical description, the number and type of weapons they have, and the number of potential victims at the location.
(6) Be ready for what’s next. When the shooting ends and the scene is safe, the problem isn’t over. Your workplace is now a crime scene, and it may be days before you can get back into the premises. Make sure you can access the information you will need to deal with the immediate aftermath. That will include a way to contact employees to know that they all made it to safety and to let them know whether and when to come back to work. That employee contact list secured in your desk won’t do you any good if you cannot get to your desk. A compassionate employer also will have information available on counseling and other services to assist employees in dealing with the fear and trauma they experienced.
Workplace violence is nobody’s favorite subject. It’s a sad reality in today’s business world, however. All of us must prepare for the day we hope will never come because that preparation is the key to survival.
Dinita L. James, a partner in the Arizona law firm Gonzalez Law, LLC, is the editor of Arizona Employment Law Letter. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 480-565-6400.