Workplace Violence at Root of San Onofre Incident
by Dr. Steven Albrecht
The dust has settled at San Onofre, at least for the time being.
Just weeks after making national headlines with a story that could be tied to everything from free speech, gun ownership in quantities or terrorism, the nuclear power plant is back to the rather dull business of generating electricity. While we can’t predict the future, the San Onofre story, threats by an ex-employee with 300-plus guns could have ended much worse.
From early reports, it appears a brave co-worker of David Reza may have stopped a potentially serious case of workplace violence at his former facility. After hearing Reza allegedly make a threat to “take my guns and go to San Onofre and whack a bunch of people,” the employee did the right and courageous thing by calling plant security and reporting his statement.
The words “brave” and “courageous” don’t seem out of place when describing what the San Onofre employee did, notifying the company security officials, who also took the right and responsible steps in contacting both federal and local law enforcement agencies.
Two critical issues in this case parallel other actual or potential workplace violence cases from the past: one, employees who fear retaliation by the threatener and two, statements made by associates of the threatener expressing such shock at his arrest.
Little Support From Employers
In the first issue, the problem stems from the very real fear employees feel when deciding whether or not to tell a co-worker or a supervisor that a current or former employee has made a threat, displayed a firearm, vandalized or sabotaged company or personal property, or even committed violence against them.
Apprehensive employees believe , often accurately , that neither the police nor their employer will help them, believe them, protect them, or handle the situation with the combination of swiftness and tact that is often necessary to deter the threatener.
As such, they often agonize over what to do and when to do it. They walk a treacherous ethical balance beam, not wanting to incur the wrath of the threatener, whom they feel certain will find out who “ratted” on them, and not wanting to bear the burden of guilt if the threatener does indeed harm someone because they did not have the courage to speak up.
So it’s not putting too much of a polish on the word “courage” to describe the actions of Mr. Reza’s former co-worker to take that hard and necessary step to call the San Onofre plant and report what was said to him.
Big Talk Or Serious Threats?
Mr. Reza’s supporters (and perhaps even his defense attorney, at the appropriate court hearing) have suggested in press interviews that his threats to harm San Onofre and its employees can be chalked up to nothing more than big talk, exaggeration, or even a creation of a few too many beers at the San Juan Capistrano saloon he frequented.
Perhaps, but we’ve learned over time that the danger of violence often comes not from the person who says, face to face, “I’m gonna kill you,” but from the one who either makes no warning, or warns the actual target through another person.
In July 1998, Bryan Vossekuil and Dr. Robert A. Fein, a U.S. Secret Service deputy special agent-in-charge and a Secret Service staff psychologist, respectively, released their groundbreaking study of assassins and other perpetrators who engage in targeted violence. Their report, “Protective Intelligence and Threat Assessment Investigations,” (a sequel to their 1997 study, “Preventing Assassination”) offered a number of seemingly counterintuitive ideas about threateners who take serious steps to kill highly visible people (the president, political figures, celebrities, business executives, etc.).
They explode one common myth: “The persons most likely to carry out attacks are those who make direct threats.” The real fact, they suggest, is that “persons who pose an actual threat often do not make make threats, especially direct threats. Would-be assassins told family members, friends, colleagues, and associates about their thoughts and plans . . .”
In other words, it is the use of third-party threats, those made about someone, to another person, by the threatener, that should concern us most. While direct threats followed by violence are common in domestic violence relationships, direct threats in the workplace, made to a supervisor or co-worker, are actually less likely to result in violence.
Surprised Or Blind?
It was the third-party threat, as Mr. Reza is alleged to have made to his former co-worker, about wanting to “whack a bunch of people,” that actually moves him further along the violence possibility spectrum.
As to the secondary issue, Mr. Reza’s girlfriend, neighbors, and associates have expressed shock, dismay, and outrage about his arrest for making criminal threats to harm people (a felony in California, by the way). But isn’t it true the same people, who seem so surprised by the arrest of a threatener, are the same ones who would act similarly so surprised had the threatener actually carried out his plan? Statements like, “It seems so out of character for him,” or “The guy never said a word about it to anybody,” actually fit both situations , threats or real violence.
The next-door neighbors of many serial killers have told the police and the media, while one group was either carrying away the bodies or filming them, “He was such a quiet man. I never would have expected him to do this.”
We rarely like to admit people are capable of horrific, targeted violence until it happens. The Orange County Sheriff’s Department, the entire San Onofre facility, and especially the employee who reported Mr. Reza’s words before they became deeds, deserves our admiration, support, and thanks.
Albrecht, a retired police reserve sergeant, is the president of Baron Center Inc. in San Diego and the author of “Fear and Violence on the Job: Prevention Solutions for the Dangerous Workplace.”