Managing Fixated Risk for the Prominent

Posted over a year ago in FRM Bulletin

Managing Fixated Risk for the Prominent

The importance of adopting a structured approach to screening communications and contact directed at talent, their friends, family and colleagues.
Whether musical, acting, sporting, presenting or corporate talent, individuals in the public eye frequently become targets of unwanted and intrusive attention from members of the public, because of who they are, what they do, or what they are perceived to represent. This usually takes the form of inappropriate, demanding, delusional or explicit communications. These can escalate to approach or disruptive behaviour. Just occasionally, escalation entails violence.
This is a problem for those charged with managing risk on behalf of the prominent: a population engaging in potentially worrying but legal communication, containing a small but statistically significant number of individuals liable to resort to destructive behaviour in pursuit of a desire, quest or grudge.
There is a strong correlation between engagement in this behaviour and the presence of cognitive distortion, personality disorder and major mental illness. But without a forensic psychiatrist on hand, how can one decide which e-mailed, written, texted or phoned communications indicate risk? Or which should require further assessment or some form of intervention?

Fans who give their loyalty and admiration to the famous usually do so alongside co-enthusiasts. They derive pleasure and mutual support from their shared interest. Fans may hope for reward for that loyalty, but they do not as a rule feel entitled to such recognition.

However, a small number of people believe that, in response to their enthusiastic and enduring interest, the prominent person owes them reciprocal affection and concern. A feeling of entitlement to some form of relationship with the celebrity is expressed through intrusive communications and approach attempts, often a profusion of them. At the extreme, this behaviour is underpinned by delusions that a very 'real' and intimate relationship already exists with the focus of their affection. Failure to receive acknowledgement or reciprocity can result in anger and resentment, occasionally directed at the victim’s spouse or partner, or in the case of presenting talent, at a co-host.

High profile talent also receive problematic communications from people who feel angry at aspects of their behaviour or beliefs. The sacking of Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear led to e-mailed death threats to the BBC's Director General, Tony Hall. This and the trolling directed on Twitter at Sue Perkins when she was wrongly linked to Clarkson’s job illustrate not just the association between 'cause' and response, but correlation between a spike in public profile and volume of unwanted communication it attracts.

Particularly common in a corporate setting are efforts to right a perceived wrong, either by a customer, service user or former employee. This can lead to protracted and ever-expanding quests for justice, vexatious litigation and whistle-blowing, and occasionally, as options are perceived to be running out, acts of lone-violence.

Isolated individuals who pursue obsessional pre-occupations to an irrational degree are known as Fixated. They are characterised by abnormalities in their mental state, ranging from particular problems of personality and cognition to major delusional and psychotic illnesses. While some communicate or present in a manner that indicates florid mental illness, others do so in a very rational and composed way, making risk and likely behavioural responses harder to judge, unless one understands their underlying psychological make-up and motivation.

The human, financial and reputational outcomes for those who become the focus of acute fixated behaviour are well understood: psychological distress to the targeted, their partners and families; interference with work function or performance; disruption to personal and professional lives; the cost of security measures or long periods of legal action; physical damage to buildings or property and violence against the person.

The Irish actor Colin Farrell is no stranger to fixated disruption. He was door-stepped on a Saturday afternoon at his home in Los Angeles by a fan who had flown into the US specifically to meet him. The man was arrested and immediately subject to a 5150 psychiatric hold order by LAPD. Farrell was also confronted during a taping of The Tonight Show by Dessare Bradford, who left a copy of her self-published book, Colin Farrell: A Dark Twisted Puppy, on host Jay Leno's desk. Having obtained a restraining order against Bradford she then tried unsuccessfully to sue Farrell for harassing her.

At the other end of the scale from disruption, the near fatal attack on baseball player Eddie Waitkus, first baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies by 19 year-old Ruth Ann Stienhagen in 1949 was one of the earliest fixated attacks to subsequently be labelled a stalker-crime. In the hotel room to which she had lured Waitkus and readying herself to shoot him the chest at close range, Waitkus is reported to have recalled Steinhagen saying, "If I can't have you, nobody else can." Her home was later described as a shrine to Waitkus with press clippings and photographs of him on the walls, a spare seat regularly set for him at the dinner table and Steinhagen even learning Lithuanian in her spare time, Waitkus' native language.

More recently Sandra Bullock was confronted inside her home in the small hours of a June morning in 2014 by Joshua Corbett. He was dressed in dark clothing, had evidently been in the property for some time prior to making his presence known and was clutching a notebook containing cut-out images of Bullock alongside handwritten notes: one stating, "I will forever be thinking of you and Louie, my son (Bullock's son), as you are my wife by law, the law of God and you belong to me and me to you." After his arrest, Corbett's home was found to contain "an arsenal of weapons, including half a dozen machine guns", according to the District Attorney. One wonders to what extent pure luck on the part of Bullock and her team in the days leading up to this confrontation averted a dramatically different outcome.

So how can one recognise communications and contact which should cause concern for the risk manager or close protection supervisor? And how can one decide which require further action or which require no further investment of resources?

If it is clear that the communication or contact constitutes a criminal offence, or is likely to do so, then the matter can be handed to the police. The quality of their response will depend on the quality and timing of the information with which they are provided, and the understanding of the officer to whom the case reference is assigned.

But the majority of fixated communication from which associated risks derive do not immediately meet this test. Rather, the communications are unreasonable, inappropriate, illogical, profuse or characterised by a sense of overriding entitlement, intensity and determination. But they do not constitute a breach of the law.

The decision to set such communications to one side for risk assessment is one that tends to taken in an ad hoc fashion and is based largely on "gut-feel", "instinct" or "experience": a difficult risk 'management' approach to defend under any circumstances. And for risk managers, very little by way of structured framework or evidential guidance exists as to the degree of risk likely to be associated with a problematic e-mail, letter, call, utterance or social media posting, or how to prioritise appropriate management responses.

However, developments in forensic psychiatry and psychology in the last decade have led to research-based screening and assessment tools for managing fixated risk. Their availability 'raise the bar' on the standard that should be adopted when it comes to identifying and managing communicated risk on behalf of the prominent. Indeed, it is now hard to justify their absence from protective security arrangements in this context.

Adopting a structured approach to screening communication empowers the risk manager, allowing identification and initial assessment to take place in-house, without necessitating immediate recourse to a third-party. While some communications may require active intervention, the effect is that no risk-bearing communications is overlooked. And a highly nuanced view of risk becomes available, not just in terms of violence - statistically the least likely to occur - but in the domains of escalation, recurrence, disruption and psychological damage to the victim.

The first element of the approach is to apply a simple evidence-based screen of factors to look for in communication flows. It should be made available to those most likely to be in receipt of fixated communication and represents the widest 'mesh' in the screening net.

Theseus provide clients with the Quick Correspondence Screen2. This is a list of eighteen items drawn from Fixated Research Group literature and indicates that some form of further assessment is needed. It is simply written, covers one side of paper and requires only a minimal amount of briefing to apply: if any item is present, then refer the communication to a risk manager immediately.

The second stage is use of a structured professional judgement tool by the risk manager to allow conclusions to be reached as to the need for, and urgency of, intervention.

Theseus train risk managers in the use of the Communications Threat Assessment Protocol (CTAP-25)3 an evidence-based tool that helps allocate cases into one of three groups and indicate an appropriate level of response: low concern, in which no further action is necessary; moderate concern, in which further investigation is necessary, such as interviewing the recipient, conducting open-source research and reviewing retained communications in order to draw up an initial response; high concern, where an urgent management plan and formal intervention is needed.

Red Flag indicators in CTAP-25 help prioritise high concern cases, such as 'end-of-tether' language, or indications of delusional-based jealousy - particularly concerning because of the illogicality and unpredictability of the Subject's responses to a 'relationship' with the public figure (as in the Bullock case, often perceived as intimate) that does not exist.

Guidance is given as part of CTAP-25 as to the structuring of initial management plans and the incorporation of factors such as imminence, capability and severity into risk judgement. Where cases are found to be of high concern, where initial in-house management has failed to change matters significantly, or where statutory intervention is proving difficult to catalyse, referral to outside specialists may then become necessary.

Co-opting specialist forensic psychiatric support at this stage provides the risk manager a powerful advantage. A clinical case formulation based on file evidence allows:

  • information relating to mental state and risk to be presented in a form and at a time that permits or compels management intervention from statutory agencies, something that would not otherwise be available.
  • the refining of legal intervention where this may have failed (or repeatedly failed) to stop the harassment;
  • the opportunity to reduce the likelihood of recidivism by introducing appropriate support as part of case disposal, such as specialist stalking treatment programmes.

Ease of access to personal information about the prominent, the ubiquity and immediacy of social media communications platforms, and the requirement that talent create and nurture relationships with a population of followers largely unknown to them, each expose a section of the population to the formation of rigid and idiosyncratic beliefs and attachments.

The cult of celebrity, the sexualisation of the media, confusion in public discourse over what is a 'right' and what is a 'reasonable expectation', and the gradual breakdown of the family and community bonds that once protected the psychologically vulnerable, indicate that fixated intrusion and the associated risks are on the increase.

The factors in fixated communications that are associated with a risk of unwanted human, legal and reputational outcomes – for Subject and victim alike - are now understood. And the tools to identify and assess those indicators are no longer the preserve of specialist policing units or impenetrable 'risk-calculating' software solutions.

"Gut-feel" and "instinct" have a role to play in managing such risk on behalf of the prominent. But in isolation they are no longer defensible.

2 James, MacKenzie, Farnham 2014
3 James, MacKenzie, Farnham 2014

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