Before the boss needs to call 911
One community's long-term response to a fatal episode of workplace violence: close collaboration with local police.
Every time a fellow police chief stands before a bank of microphones in the chilling aftermath of a workplace homicide, Stephen Doherty knows what the toughest question will be: How could this have been prevented?Skip to next paragraph
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He's been enlisting business owners, researchers, and his own officers in the Wakefield, Mass., Police Department to help find the answer for nearly three years now - ever since the day his town, "a Norman Rockwell kind of place," lost its can't-happen-here naiveté.
Chief Doherty was among the first officers on the scene that day, Dec. 26, 2000, after Michael McDermott walked into the Edgewater Technology office and fatally shot seven co-workers. The jury put Mr. McDermott behind bars for life without the possibility of parole. But when the legal case closed, Doherty's mission was just beginning.
"We can never remove ourselves from that deadly roll call," Doherty says of the list of workplace murders trotted out most recently after last month's shooting by an ex-employee at a Chicago warehouse. What Doherty wants is an asterisk next to Wakefield "that says we tried to ... develop strategies to work toward awareness and prevention."
The resulting collaboration in Wakefield is known as the Workplace Violence Pilot Program. Rather than focusing solely on mass shootings, the program confronts the less-sensational but much more common incidents of harassment and assault that undermine people's safety at work. And part of the equation is to bring the community- policing concept into places of business.
An average of 1.7 million people a year were victims of violent crime on the job between 1993 and 1999, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. That accounted for nearly 20 percent of all violent crime in the United States. The vast majority of the incidents were considered simple assaults; homicides numbered more than 800 a year on average.
Doherty speaks to business leaders around the country whenever he can, hoping to reach them before workplace violence escalates into tragedy. It's a tall order.
"[Workplace violence] is not the kind of issue that companies are eager to tackle one day out of the blue," says Kathleen Brickley, an attorney for Barnes & Thornburg in South Bend, Ind., who advised concerned employers last year after two fatal workplace shootings in her community. "What sparks interest is it happens ... and they say, 'Could it have happened here?' "
In Wakefield, researchers from Northeastern University's College of Criminal Justice say they are encountering tremendous openness and honesty in the business community. A 12-page survey sent to Wakefield employers last December received 183 responses, about 40 percent of the businesses contacted. One-third said they have policies related to workplace violence. In the past year, 15 percent of managers had reported to the police that they were victims of a violent incident at work (not necessarily at the hands of a co-worker). Another 8 percent had experienced violence but did not report it. A similar survey is under way with employees, so their perceptions can be compared with those of their bosses.
Managers often don't know how helpful the police can be if someone is making co-workers feel uneasy but hasn't done anything obviously criminal, says Jack McDevitt, associate dean of the College of Criminal Justice. "We're not saying the police are the right solution to all problems, but they may be a solution that's frequently underutilized."
It's fitting that Doherty's office is a classroom in an old school building, while a new police station is under construction. In addition to overseeing 44 officers, the chief has taken on the role of educator.
Propped up on the chalkboard behind his desk is a pie-chart poster in primary colors, illustrating the places where community policing has led to crime prevention: schools, homes, and the streets. The sliver labeled "workplace" simply has a question mark by it - a challenge to do more.