Public Safety

How Iowa City police, schools are ramping up to assess threats of violence

University of Iowa already has team gauging potential risks on campus

Iowa City police Neighborhood Response Officer Adam Schmerbach heads Wednesday to an appointment with an Iowa City housing and building inspector. He is one of four officers and a sergeant in the department who have been trained in threat assessment, with an eye toward preventing potentially violent crimes in the community. “In the Iowa City area we have been fortunate enough to not have that major incident, say, in the schools,” Schmerbach said. “But, obviously, it can happen anywhere.” (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Iowa City police Neighborhood Response Officer Adam Schmerbach heads Wednesday to an appointment with an Iowa City housing and building inspector. He is one of four officers and a sergeant in the department who have been trained in threat assessment, with an eye toward preventing potentially violent crimes in the community. “In the Iowa City area we have been fortunate enough to not have that major incident, say, in the schools,” Schmerbach said. “But, obviously, it can happen anywhere.” (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — For more than a decade, the University of Iowa has employed a team trained to assess potential threats and prevent violence on campus.

Now, two other entities in the Iowa City area are in various stages of adopting a threat assessment model of their own.

The Iowa City Community School District has applied for a grant to hire a threat assessment coordinator and train school personnel. And the Iowa City Police Department has trained a sergeant and four officers with an eye on creating a multidisciplinary approach to preventing potentially violent crimes in the community.

“In the Iowa City area we have been fortunate enough to not have that major incident, say, in the schools,” said Adam Schmerbach, one of the Iowa City police officers trained in threat assessment. “But, obviously, it can happen anywhere.”

While depending on members of the community to report concerns, a threat assessment team typically also reviews information it has developed or that its officers have observed.

The UI established a threat assessment team in 2008 in the aftermath of the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech that left 33 people dead, said Eli Hotchkin, director of the university’s threat assessment program.

Initially made up of two threat managers — a police officer and a mental health professional — the team now resides within the human resources operation at the UI and includes representatives from the UI Department of Public Safety, UI Health Care and the office of the Dean of Students.

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“We’ll take any reports of concern,” said Hotchkin, a former UI police officer. “We’ll assess them depending on if we think someone possess a risk to violence and implement interventions to mitigate any situations that could escalate to violence.”

Hotchkin said the team assesses threats made to harm others and mental health crises, and looks into sensitive campus terminations, suspensions or expulsions.

From there, the team follows a process of collecting information, interviewing witnesses, assessing if the subject is an imminent threat to him or herself or others and developing an intervention or prevention strategy if needed.

Interventions can range from welfare checks to mental health commitments to arrests.

But “that’s not our goal,” Hotchkin said of arrests. “They are used only if needed. Our team does not try to use those unless we absolutely have to.”

Hotchkin likens the threat assessment approach to going to see a cardiologist. Just as a cardiologist cannot predict if or when a patient will have a heart attack, the threat assessment team cannot say with certainty if an act of violence will occur.

Instead, like a cardiologist, the team identifies potential risk factors.

“We’re not going to say, ‘Oh yeah, they’re doing it,’ unless we have evidence they are planning an attack,” he said. “What does this person need? How can we resolve this problem? If we can’t resolve this problem, how do we mitigate the risk of violence?”

Like the university, the Iowa City school district’s interest in threat assessment followed a tragedy. In summer 2018, months after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., left 17 dead, the district’s administration created a 15-member safety advisory committee made up of community members, district employees, parents and students and tasked with making recommendations to the school board.

“Developing threat assessment was one of eight recommendations,” said Kate Callahan, director of Student Services for the district.

The district since has applied for federal grant funding from the School Violent Prevention Office through the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. If the district receives the funding, it will use the money to hire a threat assessment coordinator on a two-year basis as well as cover training costs for school staff. The district is exploring other funding opportunities should it not get the grant.

Callahan said threat assessment within the schools would have a “twofold process.” First, the student body as a whole would be monitored for concerns, taking into consideration things such as declines in attendance or performance, changes in behavior, withdrawal or isolation, drug or alcohol use and erratic or emotional behavior. Monitoring social media to catch concerning behavior is also under consideration, Callahan said.

If a potential threat is identified, the team would work with the student to offer resources and support to the student and family. Callahan said some supports could include social and family services, tutoring, mentoring or working with other community partners.

The team would meet monthly to review student behavior, Callahan said.

“Also, we would have that team meet anytime there is a threat or possible threat to the school and follow a systematic process to determine the level of threat the student poses and take appropriate action,” she said. “That is often in the form of support.”

Callahan said the district plans to implement a “say something” campaign to encourage students to report any concerns they see. The campaign would also educate students on what to look for, how to report it and what kind of information to provide.

“We don’t want to overreact, but we don’t want to underreact,” Callahan said.

Iowa City Police Sgt. Jorey Bailey, who has trained in threat assessment, said the police department’s threat assessment team will try to assist someone who may be going through a mental health crisis, made a direct threat or who has displayed threatening behaviors. Bailey said someone going through a tumultuous divorce could be one example.

“They’re going through a crisis because of that and don’t see another way out, other than violence,” he said. “It could be somebody who is having suicidal ideations or a mental health crisis and they’re having thoughts of violence.”

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Though the department is a law enforcement agency, its threat assessment team won’t always have a law enforcement response to a potential threat, Bailey said.

“The possibility of law enforcement intervention is a small piece of that intervention,” he said. “The first and most important thing we can do is get that person assistance if they’re in a mental health crisis. That will be better, long-term outcome for our community. Law enforcement isn’t always the best, long-term outcome for an individual or community. We certainly recognize that.”

With that in mind, Bailey — who has relied upon Hotchkin for guidance as Iowa City developed its threat assessment team — said the hope is to create a multidisciplinary threat assessment team, similar to what the university uses. He also wants to foster a climate of reporting concerning behavior.

“We want to encourage the public that if they see something, say something,” said Bailey. “That’s the beginning. We rely on that community approach to obtain information about risk and threat.”

Schmerbach said one of the best aspects of threat assessment is the multidisciplinary approach. As the department’s Neighborhood Response Officer, he works with the Housing Authority and Neighborhood Development Services to address neighborhood disputes and issues. He said sharing information between the entities is vital and something the threat assessment process does, too.

“There’s a lot of information out there, especially with mental health stuff, that we have no clue about (when dealing with a subject) because you don’t know what you don’t know,” he said. “The multidisciplinary approach is important to me. I think we’re getting there.”

Ultimately, the UI and Iowa City police threat assessment teams — along with others — could join to create a countywide team, said Bailey and Hotchkin.

“Threat assessment doesn’t work if we’re not all in it together,” Hotchkin said. “If we’re not collaborating, then the process really has a gap and we need to fill that. That’s part of why I began the work with Iowa City, to make sure all of our community members feel safe.”

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Added Hotchkin, “We have threats that aren’t just coming from internally. How can we work together to resolve some of these situations and work together to figure it out? Being siloed doesn’t work.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3155; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

REPORTING CAMPUS THREATS

While the Iowa City Police Department and the Iowa City Community School District are in various stages of launching threat assessment programs, the University of Iowa has been running one for more than a decade. If you see suspicious or threatening behavior on campus, contact (319) 384-2955 or uitat@uiowa.edu.

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