Michelle Keeney, PhD, JD, brings the insights of a clinical psychologist and the legal knowledge of a lawyer to her job of helping Secret Service agents protect elected officials and other public figures from harm.
As needed, Keeney helps Secret Service agents understand the role a person's mental health may play in the risk they might pose. Along with its protection mission, the service is also charged with safeguarding the nation's financial system from counterfeiting and fraud, and offering training to local officials on ways to improve school safety.
What role does psychology play in the National Threat Assessment Center's work?
It plays three roles, actually. The first is consulting on what we refer to as "protective intelligence investigations," in which a subject has come to our attention in some way and we're concerned they may pose a threat to one of our protectees. Frequently, the person has a history of mental illness. Our goal is to help that person be managed in the community. We tend not to arrest as the first option. We really try to work with their social workers, their psychologists or their doctors to get them in a better place where we don't have to worry about them.
The second major area is research. Generally, we try to do things we can share with other law enforcement and other protective agencies. For example, with the Safe Schools Initiative, a survey known as the SSI, we examined school-based attacks dating back to 1974. One of the findings coming out of that study was that many of the students who carried out the attacks reported a history of bullying, or that people around them reported that they had witnessed them being bullied.
The third role is training. Again, for example, the Safe Schools Initiative works with individuals in the community who have a responsibility for public safety and the prevention of violence at the elementary, middle and high school level, and we offer training that highlights the findings from the SSI and the Threat Assessment guide.
What kinds of incidents have been prevented because of such training?
One occurred in New Bedford, Mass. The chief of police, who had reviewed the materials from the study, was familiar with the need to develop a network between local law enforcement and the school. When they had a situation where a student reported that some other students were planning an attack on the school, the officials were able to act quickly and make arrests.
What research do you have under way?
One project is creating a database of incidents of violence directed toward public officials and public figures in U.S. history since the government was established. It's going to help us look at where events occur, who the targets are, what their characteristics are and more, to give us information we can use to inform our protective intelligence mission.
A second research project is a collaborative effort we're starting with the FBI and the U.S. Department of Education. It's related to the Safe Schools Initiative, but it's looking at post-secondary institutions.
How do agents use your center's research in the field?
One research project we've done is the Exceptional Case Study Project, an analysis of 83 people who assassinated, made an attempt to assassinate someone or planned an attack from 1949 to 1996. By looking at similarities and patterns in the 83 people who were part of 73 incidents, we developed 10 areas of inquiry to guide or frame an investigation that agents and state and local investigators can employ as part of a threat assessment. The questions include: Does the subject have a history of mental illness involving command hallucinations, delusional ideas, feelings of persecution, etc., with indications that the subject acted on those beliefs? How organized is the subject? Does the subject have the ability to plan and execute a violent action against a target?
What are the main obstacles in your work?
We work in an operational environment that's very fast-paced, where decisions have to be made by the second, by the minute, so one of the obstacles is creating space for long-term research. It also can be challenging to help the operational side of the house understand that research takes time, and while we can get answers to them quickly, they're not going to be well-researched answers.
What do you like about the work?
It's always something different. This week, for example, I had a consultation on a protective intelligence investigation and part of that was talking about different treatment options and the level of risk for the individual. I assisted the agents who were out in the field, helping them think through the case and suggesting different things for them to look at and investigate. We also had a meeting with the National Academies of Science [because] we're starting some new research initiatives and I feel very strongly about the need to have the best scientists involved. That's why I love my job. Every day is a different challenge.
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