My guest today, Spencer Coursen, would say that while this mindset may help us feel safe, it’s actually when we feel the most safe, that we’re in the greatest danger. Spencer — who’s a combat veteran and a threat management expert — calls this paradox “the safety trap,” and he’s the author of a book of the same name. Today on the show, Spencer shares the factors that can put us in the safety trap, and ways to escape it. We discuss how an avoidance mindset and a reliance on false authority can put us in greater danger, how the run-hide-fight rubric for responding to an active shooter has been misapplied, and how being too polite can get you killed. From there we turn to ways you can take responsibility for your own safety, including knowing the warning signs that someone may take violent action and staying physically fit. We also discuss what to do if people are sending you potentially threatening messages online.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- AoM Article: What to Do in an Active Shooter Situation
- AoM Podcast #513: Be Your Own Bodyguard
- Podcast #688: Protection for and from Humanity
- Radio Lab: No Special Duty
Connect With Spencer Coursen
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. We like to think that our personal safety and the safety of our loved ones, is something that other people, law enforcement, school administrators, social media moderators, will take care for us. My guests today, Spencer Coursen, would say that while this mindset may help us feel safe, it’s actually when we feel the most safe, that we’re in the greatest danger. Spencer, who’s a combat veteran and a Threat Management Expert, calls this paradox, The Safety Trap, and he’s the author of a book of the same name.
Today in the show, Spencer shares the factors that can put us in the Safety Trap, and ways to escape it. We discuss how an avoidance mindset and reliance on false authority can put us in greater danger. How the, “Run, Hide, Fight” rubric for responding to an active shooter has been mis-applied, and how being too polite can get you killed. From there, we turn into ways you can take responsibility for your own safety, including knowing the warning signs that someone may take violent action, and staying physically fit. We also discuss what to do if people are sending you potentially threatening messages online. After the show is over check out our shownotes at aom.is/safetytrap.
Alright. Spencer Coursen, welcome to the show.
Spencer Coursen: Brett, so great to be here. Thank you so much for inviting me.
Brett McKay: So you got a book out called, ‘The Safety Trap: A security expert’s secrets for staying safe in a dangerous world’. And we’re gonna talk about this today, ’cause there’s a lot of great insights about personal safety, and safety at work. But before we do this, talk about your background. You are a Threat Management Expert. What does that involve? What type of clients do you have?
Spencer Coursen: Yeah so, Coursen Security Group is a boutique threat management consulting firm based here in Austin, Texas. And we really do three things. One, is your more typical, threat assessment work, like, “Hey, this guy is threatening to kill our CEO”, or stalking a public figure, or a blackmail, or something like that. We kinda pride ourselves on helping good people to make bad things better. So there’s a myriad of applications and resources at our disposal, to sort of, manage that bad thing towards its most favorable resolution. And so, some of our clients call on us to support them in those endeavors.
The second thing we do is physical security and vulnerability reduction assessments. We do a lot of work with big corporations in the IRS 132 field. And IRS 132, for people who don’t know… So let’s say you’re like the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, or you’re the CEOs of these big global companies, and that company has a security detail that is dedicated to keeping that CEO safe. The IRS has said that if you have an independent auditor come in and look at your program and make the recommendation that, “Yes, this is… This person has legitimate security concerns. They are, what we would consider to be, an at-risk individual. Therefore, that security program is not a perk but it’s a requirement.” And if the organization can prove that through this assessment process, then that CEO is not responsible for the tax liability of that protective service. So it can be a very financially beneficial process for the CEO to legitimize what it is they’re doing, and the mission on which they are engaged.
And then the third thing I do is, litigation support and expert witness testimony in lawsuits where security was negligent, or premises liability, where they didn’t have the safeguards in place to keep people safe when they came into their bar, their restaurant, their stadium, their club. We see a lot of this with… Like the Live Nation lawsuit that’s going on right now with The Travis Scott Show, down in Houston. We see it with… If there’s any kind of shootings at stadiums, or events, and things of that nature, my firm will sometimes get called in or I will be personally asked to look at the facts, look at the policy and procedures that were on the page, look at the best practices that are in place throughout the security industry as a whole, and then compare and contrast them to see if, you know, “Hey, they did do the right thing.” Or, “Hey, here’s where they were negligent.”
Brett McKay: Well, how did you make this your career?
Spencer Coursen: It’s interesting. Like I say in the book, being a protector is a craft I’ve honed my entire life. I started my career in the military. I was an airborne ranger with the 82nd Airborne. And then from there, I was a specially deputized, a US Marshal with the State Department. And then I got recruited into Gavin de Becker and Associates. And I was doing a lot of work with high networth individuals, and celebrities, and luminaries of all creed and color. But then the tragedy at Sandy Hook really had a dramatic impact on my life because my parents were both teachers. I have family and friends who are teachers. My uncle is a superintendent.
And I had a lot of family and friends reaching out to me being like, “Hey, what do we do? Are we next? Is this something that we should be concerned about?” And I realized in that moment that while my particular skillset was being made readily available to the top 1%, that the other 99%… Most of us will never know the luxury of having our own security detail, but every single one of us deserves to be protected. And so I wanted to find a way that I could disseminate that experience, and that outlook, and that professional capability that I had, but make it readily available for the other 99%. And the book wound up being the ultimate culmination of that mission.
Brett McKay: Okay, so let’s talk about the book. The book is called, ‘The Safety Trap’, and this is a phrase you coined to describe the following paradox, “You are the most in danger when you feel the most safe.” Can you give us some examples of the safety trap that you see play out over and over again with people?
Spencer Coursen: How I explain the safety trap is that, sometimes feeling safe is the most dangerous thing we do. Because what happens is when we feel safe, our vigilance goes down. And the more our vigilance goes down, the more our risk goes up. We have a tendency, as individuals, and I think even as a nation, to live our lives on the fringe of this pendulum which swings back and forth, between hyper-vigilance and complacency. We’re either saying, “Hey, nothing is going to happen” or we’re patting down grandma as she’s walking into the ballpark. And the truth is, is that all most of us really need to stay safe, is a healthy sense of skepticism and a moderate dose of vigilance, and understand that safety is not an end point, it’s a journey. It’s an ever-evolving process that requires our individual participation. Because at the end of the day, you are responsible for keeping you safe.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think a good example of that pendulum swinging you were talking about is, when a mass shooting happens, a few days after it people are feeling really worried so they become really vigilant and focusing on situational awareness when they’re out and about. But then a week later, they’re back to being just as complacent as before.
Spencer Coursen: Well, even think about it in terms of when COVID hit. And all of a sudden, it was really hard to get groceries, it was really hard to get deliveries to the house, and most people didn’t have on-hand resources to last them more than a day or two. And so, a lot of people were like, “Oh okay, when this is all done, I’m gonna… I’m gonna make sure that I’m more fortified.” And people were stockpiling toilet paper and hand sanitizer and paper towels and what have you. But then things kind of returned to normal and now everyone’s kind of back to where they were again. But can you imagine if that were to happen again? People would be most often right back to where they were in that same situation, because complacency has… Just it almost always just sets back in and it puts us right back at risk. Because like I say, “The more safe we feel the more our vigilance goes down, which allows for the risk profile to increase.”
Brett McKay: So throughout the book, you do a really good job of breaking down the factors that can make us feel complacent and which can contribute to the safety trap. And the first behavior that you talk about is avoidance. And this is an example of someone sees something that they’re like, “Okay, something’s wrong there,” but then they just don’t do anything about it. I think everyone’s had that instance where they don’t feel good about something or someone, and they just sort of, “Oh well, I’m gonna ignore that.” And then it ends up being a problem down the line. Why do we do that?
Spencer Coursen: It starts as when we’re children, right? We’re confronted with something and we don’t have the skill set or the outlook or the experience to either comprehend what’s happening, or we don’t have the tools or resources to negotiate what’s happening. And so we wait for our parents to come and kind of explain it to us what’s going on. It’s very easy as we get older to simply adopt that same framework where, “Oh, if I just don’t think about it, it will go away,” or “This will be someone else’s problem.” And so what happens is, we allow that problem to fester and to grow and to become more of a crisis. And it’s one of those things where if you don’t address today’s concerns, you’re going to be forced to face tomorrow’s crisis.
And while we may have to get out of our comfort zone to address that initial whatever it is that makes us feel uneasy, that teaching tool, that “Starting small and building strong” approach will provide the skill sets and the confidence and the outlook and the perspective necessary for you to address more problems as you move forward. Because no one fears that which they know well. And once you are in a position where you gain the confidence of overcoming or negotiating a certain obstacle, you’re kind of looking for that fundamental line between challenge and difficulty. And the more that you allow yourself to keep moving up that vertical, the more skilled and the more prepared and the more aware you will be to avoid avoidance in the future.
Brett McKay: Okay, so it’s a skill that you practice, avoiding avoidance. So another factor that can lead to complacency and create a safety trap is this reliance on false authority. What do you mean by false authority?
Spencer Coursen: False authority is when people are presumed to be subject matter experts, but are not. And we see this a lot with schools. We see this a lot with stadiums. We see this a lot with airports where, I’ll use the stadium example, where you have a lot of people making minimum wage standing around, and they have the skill set to take your ticket and tell you where your seat is or maybe direct you to where the bathroom is, but not much else. But since they are walking around with this blazer with “Security” emblazoned across the back, should something happen, people are going to immediately look to those people for direction, guidance, what to do in that emergency situation. And while that individual may be very qualified to tell you where your seat is or where the bathrooms are located, those people are not trained in mass casualty evacuation events.
But if you put… So if your faith and confidence in those people and you follow their instruction, you’re kinda putting yourself at a disadvantage. Because when it comes to anyone outside of your immediate household or people who you know are truly subject matter experts in their field, you always want to sort of take into consideration, “Is the instruction that they are giving you in your best interest or in theirs?” Because in most cases, it’s going to be in theirs. We see this in schools with the whole Run, Hide, Fight philosophy. Which in its initial inception is a brilliant concept, where it was originally intended as a military application where pilots, special operators who were shot down behind enemy lines or were captured, if they had the ability to escape the enemy would escape, and they would run as far away as they could towards friendly forces. And then if they got too tired to keep moving, they would hide. They would camouflage themselves until they were able to get their energy back, and then they would keep moving.
But if they were to be confronted by the enemy again, they were to fight like their life depended on it, because it most surely did. But then when we take that same application and we overlay it into something like a school or a workplace, we are not telling them at the sound of gunshots, “Put as much time and distance between you and the threat as possible.” What we are telling them is to “Run to their hiding spot.” And life and death is not a game of hide-and-seek. And so when I talk about the false authority of things, you really need to take into consideration the very real dichotomy between accountability and survivability.
Brett McKay: Okay, so what you’re saying is that run, hide, fight… It’s a good rubric, if you’re looking at it like, run away from the shooter, get out of the building, get to a safe haven as far away from the shooter as possible, and then only hide if you absolutely can’t run away, but what schools and workplaces have done is that they’ve taken this rubric and say, Yeah, run, but run to your hiding spot in the building… You should shelter in place.
Spencer Coursen: So the reason that schools preach, “run to your hiding spot” versus “run, hide, fight” is because they are responsible for the children at that school while it’s during school hours. What they don’t want is for all of those kids to scatter and put as much time and distance between them and the threat as possible, but then not know where those kids are, as if those kids were gonna come back and sit in a classroom an hour later, so what the methodology should be is every parent should have the ability to instruct their kid that in the event of an active shooter, every parent should have a safe haven identified for their child to go to so that if something does happen, they’re not worried about a family reunification thing at the school, they know exactly where their kid is and they can go and collect them.
And we even see this with police departments. We saw this most recently with Uvalde, where the police don’t have a responsibility to personal safety, their responsibility is to the public safety, and so they were very happy to keep that threat contained within that classroom, because if it was contained within that classroom, they didn’t have to worry about it extending out into the community, because a lot of people believe that this whole, to protect and serve is a by law and it’s not, it’s a motto.
The police, and this has been… Radiolab did a great episode on this not too long ago, entitled “No Special Duty”, where the police really do not have any responsibility to protect an individual from the actions of a third party, but what they do have a responsibility to perform is to keep the public at large protected from that bad actor, and that’s often why you see them, say… This is why they often triumph the “shelter in place” versus “evacuate.” A fire in a building is just as violent and unpredictable as an active shooter, but we wouldn’t hide from a fire and hope it wouldn’t find us, we would run.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s something that… A big take away I took from the book, ’cause you hammer this home, is like the whole run, hide, fight, as you said, it’s been misapplied and misunderstood, your best bet, if you’re ever… God forbid you ever found yourself in the situation, to just… To run. Put as much distance between you and the perpetrator as possible.
Spencer Coursen: Correct. You are your own authority in a life and death situation, no one can tell you what to do, no one has the authority to tell you that you have to stay. Even if you are at a movie theater and something happens and the manager of the movie theatre comes in and says, Hey everyone, we’re gonna stay here, he has no authority to… He certainly has the right to say, Hey, we’re gonna stay here, but you have no responsibility to abide by his directive, that’s false authority, that’s the false authority I’m talking about. And what I want every person who has read my book, or who hears my voice, or who has ever had any interest in ensuring the certainty of their own safety is that when moments matter most, you are your own authority.
Brett McKay: And this applies to outside of active shooter situations, if there’s a fire in the building, you’re probably gonna have some person at the office saying, Evacuate here, follow in this orderly fashion, and it might be the thing you probably shouldn’t do ’cause that’s just gonna lead you to harm instead of getting away from harm.
Spencer Coursen: Exactly, let’s look at the whole… The bomb threat scenario or the fire drill scenario. If a building was really on fire, are you really gonna stand in the parking lot and watch it burn? Because do you know how hot that building would have to be in order for it to be on fire? Just go home.
Brett McKay: I think this is hard for people to overcome, the false authority thing ’cause they… People are afraid to go against… To buck the system. If I don’t follow the protocol, I’m gonna get fired or kid is gonna go, well it’s the teacher and if don’t… I’m gonna get suspended if I don’t. But you said, survivability is more important. That’s a priority.
Spencer Coursen: Right? And that’s why I have a whole section in the book about being too polite, and what that ultimately comes down to is your willingness to be disagreeable, and being disagreeable does not mean you are bucking the system just for the sake of being disgruntled, but it’s about speaking truth to stupid. Okay, I understand why this policy is in place, but who authored this policy? What was their intent? What was their direction? Because a lot of times what you had was, especially right after 9/11, where every security consultant was just the janitor that had the most keys, and so people just assumed that these people knew what they were talking about, schools invested all of this money into keeping things protected.
Listen, every time there’s a school shooting, what do you hear other than the mental health versus gun debate, schools are always talking about, We need to make these hard targets, we need to make sure that there’s bulletproof black boards and hardened doors and all of these things, but the reality is, is that in rare exception, Sandy Hook was an exception, and this most recent Uvalde shooting was an exception, a very high percentage, I would say like nine out of 10 times, those who attack schools and those who attack workplaces are insider threats, not outside actors.
And what you have on the pathway to violence is someone who… And the reason students attack schools and employees attack their workplace is because that’s where the grievance is usually first manifested, where the ideation that they can do something about it is first realized, where the research and planning to carry out that act can be disguised as part of their everyday routine, where they don’t need to breach any security because they’re supposed to be there, and so you really don’t know what they’re doing until the shots ring out. And in most cases what you have is… The New York Times and The Washington Post and a few others have been championing this statistic most recently about how few of these active shooters suffer from mental illness. And that’s true.
Most of them were not bipolar, most of them were not schizophrenic, but just because they didn’t have a diagnosed mental illness does not mean they were not suffering from a mental health concern, where they didn’t have the emotional intelligence to ask for help, or the… We saw during, being lockdown in COVID, during isolation, the mental health concerns escalate. Alcoholism escalated, domestic violence and intimate partner violence grew exponentially. And a lot of times when you have people who are disenfranchised, who are being bullied, who are being neglected at home, and then they act out in school or in work and the response is punitive, and you have some child who is then put in detention, and is told, “Sit here and don’t talk because listen, we don’t wanna have to deal with you either,” it just exacerbates that problem because when you don’t have someone who has the emotional intelligence to ask for help, they are often acting out in ways that they seek attention, and when those cries for help go unanswered, most often, those gunshots are, “Can you hear me now?”
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. So, you mentioned earlier this process that internal threats go through before they actually do the attack. And so you mentioned, usually there’s a grievance involved.
Spencer Coursen:Yeah, there’s always a grievance involved.
Brett McKay: Always, yeah. Oh, yeah, always a grievance involved.
Spencer Coursen: In fact, when you’re, when… In fact, when I’m doing a threat assessment, if someone says like, “Hey, FU, I hope you die, or blah, blah, blah,” well, the first thing we’re looking at is a grievance, so why is that? Is it someone who, “Hey, I used to be your biggest fan, but now I hate you.” Oh, well, what was the pivot point? Because now there’s a grievance, now that’s something we wanna take seriously, versus someone on the left who always hated somewhere on the right, or someone on the right who always hated someone on the left or where it’s just disruptive rhetoric rather than predatory behaviors. But one of the first things you’re looking for is the recognition of a grievance.
Brett McKay: Alright, a grievance. So, and this could be if a kid gets picked on at school, bullied at work, or a guy gets fired or looked over for a promotion or something like that.
Spencer Coursen: 100%.
Brett McKay: Okay, so that’s the first step. Then it’s ideation. What is that?
Spencer Coursen: So, ideation is basically, they’re coming to the terms that they have a way to resolve that grievance, whether that be through blackmail or whether that be through violence, or whether that be through some kind of like a smear campaign, but basically they have in their mind, come up with what we consider to be like a reasonable plan for how they can resolve that grievance, how they can displace that angst that they are feeling onto someone else.
Brett McKay: And you said, in this process, oftentimes these people, they have leakage where they kind of leak out their intentions, correct?
Spencer Coursen: 100%. So basically, what you’re seeing here is the… And you see this most in the research and planning phase. So, the number one factor of any target selection is likelihood of success, and the only way to know if your success is likely is through research and planning. So, maybe you’re probing defenses or… So let’s say you at work have a badge and your badge gets you into the front door and it gets you into the parking garage, and it gets you into your office and it gets you into the break room. But let’s say that you now have a grievance with your boss. Well, does your badge also get into his office and so you try it and maybe you don’t get in, but then does anyone say like, “Hey, why did you try to get into his office?” Or can you get in and then still nobody says, Well, now you know you have access to his office, right. So, now, this is part of the research and planning phase. So, even though that person did not directly communicate with someone else, there were systems and strategies in place that could alert the organization that this person is acting outside of his normal behavioral routine.
And so when we talk about leakage, what we’re really talking about is what are the behavioral anomalies that are outside of normal operating behavior? “Is Bob typically a meek and mannered person, and now all of a sudden is in the break room slamming drawer shut and breaking dishes and mumbling, “Fuck this place,” like under his breath.” Well, maybe you wanna ask Bob if everything is okay. Or at least tell someone that Bob is not doing too well. What they’re also looking for is they will very rarely express their grievance to the source of their grievance. What they will often do is try to team-build. So, Bob has a problem with Burt, may not go to Burt and get in Burt’s face, but he may go to Ernie and be like, “How are you friends with Burt? What asshole.”
And so Ernie, if he hears that, but then also hears Bob in the break room acting all disruptive, now you’re starting to see a pattern in practice that could be indicative of harm. And the thing is this, maybe Bob is not on a pathway to violence, but maybe Bob is having problems at home or is dealing with something else, and this other thing with Burt was just sort of like the tipping point, but if you get to Bob early enough, you can not only help him with the underlying grievance but you can help him course correct that pathway to violence toward a much more peaceful resolve.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. Okay, so just to… We have a grievance, ideation, then you have research and planning, we talked about that, and then the breach, and that’s when they start bringing stuff in.
Spencer Coursen: Or that could even be during the research and planning. So, the breach would really only be if they needed to bypass some kind of security measure where they shouldn’t have. Sometimes a breach isn’t some ninja coming down like a Tom Cruise, Mission Impossible movie like through a skylight or kicking in a back door, sometimes it’s just they know where the vulnerabilities already exist and they know how to exploit them. Now, sometimes you may see this where an employee at work will start stockpiling weapons or hiding things around that they aren’t supposed to have or… But basically what you have is, this is really the last chance that an organization has to identify a bad actor, that someone is about to do something bad.
Brett McKay: Oh, let’s talk about another contributing factor to the safety trap and that’s physical fitness. What’s going on there?
Spencer Coursen: Physical fitness is, not only is it going to be a very important part of keeping yourself safe, but it’s also going to have a direct benefit to reducing your anxiety and/or depression. Our bodies are basically like batteries that have to exert so much energy every day, and if we are not exerting that energy in through some kind of physical exercise or exertion or things of that nature, that energy only has one place to go, and it’s typically going to go to anxiety or depression. So, the constant upkeep of our physical fitness, the motion is lotion, is one of the first steps to just keeping our own mental health and sense of self in check. And another thing is that keeping physically fit provides three core functions of protection. One is that it enables you to keep yourself protected, two, it enables you to keep your family protected, and three, it would allow you to help keep your community protected.
And the example I give in the book is that people have a tendency to believe that in an emergency situation they will exceed expectation, and the reality is that you’re going to default to your lowest common practice. So, if you have never had to run 50 feet, 100 feet, 500 feet down a hallway, and I mean sprint like your life depends on it, you may be afraid of that run and you may choose instead to hide. And that hiding instead of flighting could be a real difference between life and death. So, your physical fitness is what gives you the confidence to know that you can perform under duress when needed, which is why you see soldiers and you see elite athletes, they’re always trying… They’re constantly trying to push themselves because much like the avoidance factor, no one fears that which they know well, and once you become comfortable being uncomfortable, you are setting yourself up not just for personal success, but you are having a drastic increase on the certainty of your future safety.
Brett McKay: How has over protecting our kids created safety traps?
Spencer Coursen: One of the things I talk about in the book is that parents love to champion this “Stranger danger” philosophy, but what I often advocate for is, “Stranger danger” is a one-way street. While it is wildly inappropriate for an adult to ask a child for help, it is perfectly acceptable for a child alone and afraid and in need of support to ask an adult for help. And parents were like, Well, I don’t want my kid going up and asking some possible abductor for help. I’m like, Well, you’re… Listen, children have an innate sense of right and wrong. They’re not going to go up and ask for help from someone who makes them feel uncomfortable, but they will feel comfortable going up and asking for help from someone that they feel comfortable asking for help from, if they have your permission to do so. And so one of the things I champion is, food, flags and families. If you see someone who is a hot dog vendor or an ice cream truck, or a restaurant or a Starbucks or a McDonalds or whatever, you know that that is a place where… That’s been vetted, that has the permits, place with food is a place that your child should feel comfortable going and asking for help.
Same thing with families. If you see an adult with other children, whether that’s a parent or a nanny or a babysitter, or you just see a bunch of children with a couple adults standing around them in a park, those are people your child should feel comfortable going to and asking for help. And flags. If you see a flag in front of a building or on a uniform, or on a bag or a patch or on the side of a car, that is someone that they should feel comfortable to ask for help. And here’s the thing is that I’m not saying that if you see one of these three things, those are the things they have to go through, but those are great little games that you can play with your kids as you’re out and about going, Okay, what flags do we see? What food do we see? What families do we spot? So that your child has a natural operating language for, Okay, I’m used to looking for these things, now I see three or four options, which option makes me feel the best to approach? And I think the more that we empower our children with our own participation in staying safe and remove the burden that fear sometimes plays on those security situations, we are ultimately setting our children up for success rather than detriment.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think you did a good job of… You wanna help your kids, empower them. You don’t wanna freak them out. I think a lot of times what parents do and teachers, they just say, Well, here’s this bad thing that can happen, stay away, and it’s like, What’s the kid supposed to do with that? But when you give them just proactive things they can do, that’s a better approach.
Spencer Coursen: And don’t discount their fears. I think that’s something that parents sometimes do as well. So like, Hey, your kid thinks that there’s a mountain lion in the closet, open the closet, shine the light in, then maybe you take five minutes and you explain to them, So, how would a mountain lion get up here? Do you think… Mountain lions don’t have opposable thumbs. Do you think they opened the front door and picked the lock and then came in without anyone noticing to then get into your… Talk to them through that process, because imaginations… [chuckle] I had an instructor once tell me that imaginations were always bigger than two things, budgets and fears. If you give them the time and the space to process that concern, they themselves will realize the ridiculousness of that thought, and you are giving them the opportunity to allow for logic and understanding and real data to replace the emotional anxiety, which would have been informing their thoughts and decision-making process beforehand.
Brett McKay: So, we talked about earlier that… When we were going through that five-step process of an attack.
Spencer Coursen: So, this is a concept that two people, much smarter than me at the FBI, Reid and Malloy came up with, and it’s officially classified as the pathway toward violence, and it’s the five steps, grievance, ideation, research and planning, breach and attack.
Brett McKay: Let’s play this like a personal level, let’s say someone is for a personal threat assessment, ’cause this is happening… This happens, I think, quite a bit with people. They get a crazy DM, direct message, from somebody or a text message, really, it’s kind of threatening. How do you figure out whether, okay, this is a concern or is this just some guy blowing off steam? How do you suss that out?
Spencer Coursen: You know where I see this a lot, like on the individual concern, is dating apps, where a guy will reach out to a girl, both swiped right or Hinged or Bumbled or whatever they’re doing today, and it starts off innocent and sweet like, “Hey, you’re really beautiful. You’ve got kind eyes.” And then she doesn’t respond. “Hey, I just wanted to make sure you got my message,” and then maybe she didn’t respond. And then… And maybe she’s just not… For whatever reason, she’s not responding, and that eventually becomes the, “You bitch, I hope you get raped and murdered.”
So there’s basically two kinds of inappropriate communication. One is predatory, and one is disruptive. So, if you have two communications that are to actually… Let’s say celebrity A gets her handler, or her agent, or her manager, or her lawyer, whoever, go, “Hey, we were going through her mail, and there were two things that were of concern. The first one said, “Hey, if you keep eating peanut butter sandwiches, you’re gonna get fat.” And the second one said, “F you. We hope you die.” Which one of those is more concerning?” The one that’s actually more concerning is, “If you keep eating peanut sandwiches you’re gonna get fat,” because that demonstrates insider information.
How does that person know that if she keeps eating peanut butter sandwiches, she’s gonna get fat? Is he her Uber Eats delivery guy? Is he the guy that keeps checking her out buying gallons of peanut butter at Whole Foods? Is he the guy at whatever deli she goes to that is making her those sandwiches? So that’s a level of concern that we would want to look into. But beyond that, what we’re really looking for is the factor of a grievance. Does the communication either explicitly or implicitly lead one to believe that this communication is tied to a grievance, and especially if those communications are coming in, in more than one fashion? So if we see someone and they’ve actually signed their name or it’s from an email address or a phone number, or if it’s postmarked to an address, we can actually go and look at their social media or their profiles or whatever, and see, are these people just natural disruptors who just hate their own life, and so they spend a lot of time spewing discontent into the world in an attempt to make themselves feel better? Or is this someone who we look on their profile and we see that they’re at a shooting range with that celebrity’s face on a target and it’s got five bullets in the ten-ring.
It’s kinda like one of those things where if you read a Yelp review, like the more words used, the more unfavorable that review is likely to be. Because if it’s a positive review, it’s usually like, “Oh, it’s great, loved it. Fun.” But if it’s a bad review, it’s gonna start off with, “Well, what was supposed to be an enjoyable night out for me and my wife on our anniversary, met with blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And then if you go to that person’s Yelp review and you see all of their reviews are negative, and then you see that this person is also sending your client a negative communication, that person’s most likely a disruptor. And so basically what you’re looking for is totality of circumstance. Is there supporting evidence of a grievance, or is this someone who is just trying to displace their own anxiety onto you in an attempt to make themselves feel better? Because the reaction that they imagine you having to reading their letter is better than anything they could actually achieve themselves.
Brett McKay: Okay. So, distinguish between someone who is a disruptor, which is basically, you’re just… Your garden-variety internet troll, and someone who’s actually a legitimate potential threat. Okay. But so, let’s say you get a DM or something that seems potentially predatory, how should you respond to that?
Spencer Coursen: So, I have a buddy of mine who’s a comedian, and when he sees something out in the world that makes him think, he goes, “Oh, that’s interesting,” or, “That’s weird,” or, “That’s odd,” or, “That’s off.” And then that thought comes back to him again, that’s his subconscious telling him that there’s something there and that he’s gotta do something about it, or there’s something there that he needs to investigate. And so what I typically recommend people do is, We all have a very highly evolved self-defense mechanism that allows us to know when something’s not right. So, if you get a message from someone, and that’s what we would classify as an inappropriate communication, and you’re just like, [chuckle] “Whatever buddy,” and you don’t think about it ever again, don’t worry about it. But if you read it and it makes you think twice, document it. And I can’t underscore how important the documenting of these kinds of behaviors are, because what will ultimately protect you is being able to show that this individual demonstrated a pattern in practice over space and time that was intended to harass, torment, or cause fear.
Let me give you two examples. In one case, there’s a male employee who’s being sexually inappropriate with a female co-worker at work during work hours. The female employee reports this behavior to the HR and the male individual is warned, he does that again and he’s then terminated. That male individual then starts leaving her messages on social media, starts texting her. Like a month or so later, starts like sending flowers to her house, there’s gifts at her front door. Now she starts seeing him in the parking lot of her gym, and this is all over the course of a month or two. Until one day she notices him sitting outside of her apartment building, sitting in his truck, just waiting outside. So, she calls the police and says, “Hey, there’s this creepy guy in a truck outside of my house,” and the police come and they see the guy and they ask the guy like, what he’s doing? And he’s like, “Oh, I’m sitting here waiting for my friend.” And they’re like, “Well, do you know this girl?” And then he’s like, “Well, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
The police have absolutely nothing to go on. They can’t arrest that guy. But if that woman, that same female, had over the course of that past month or two documented everything into a spreadsheet or an email or whatever, and then calls the police and says, Hey, this guy who on this day did this, on this day did that, on this day did this, and on this day did that, and she has a pattern in practice that shows him violating the very real divide between a public space and personal space, that he is now going from disruptive behaviors to predatory behaviors, he is clearly on this pathway to violence, and now the police show up and see him sitting in his car, he’s definitely getting arrested, and it all is because the incidents up until that point were documented.
Brett McKay: So, document, but should you respond?
Spencer Coursen: No, never respond.
Brett McKay: No, okay.
Spencer Coursen: Because here’s the thing, it’s… Remember when we’re all in high school and the boy calls you like 10 times, and then you answer on the 11th time, all you’ve done is reframe his expectations that the next time he has to call 12. What you want to show… And I actually had this… I had this exact case where I had an ex-boyfriend of one of my clients reached out to her via text, phone call, email, social media… He literally sent her two cents on Venmo just so he could tell her that he hoped she would die. And the judge was like, Well, I see all of these, I see… ‘Cause we had it all in a spreadsheet and a template, and this is the times, days and incidents and all this stuff, and the judge was like, Well, where… I only see him reaching out to you, where are all the times that you responded? And we were able to say we never once responded, the judge was like, “Oh, I get it now.”
Because what you’re not doing is this game of cat and mouse, what you are doing is trying to… And every time he would try to do something and she wouldn’t respond, he would create another account and try that way, he would try… He would… Just kept looking for all the different pathways that he could get hold of her. She was never blocking, never deleting, never doing anything because as soon as you… ’cause what you don’t wanna do is have it turn into this game of cat and mouse, but what you do want to do is keep that going.
Because here’s the thing, like we were talking about before, with the target selection being determined by a likelihood of success, most people who communicate… And this is, I’m talking about non-personal, so I’m not talking about former intimate partners or classmates or employees. You see, the people who like stalks some public figures and things like that, one, there’s typically a mental health concern, but two is what they’re basically looking for is some kind of response from the target of their action. Without that response, they’re going to transition to a target that they believe will be more likely to engage.
So, the first thing is never, don’t block, don’t delete, don’t do it… Just ignore. You can report them. I absolutely recommend reporting them, and sometimes if that server… I know like Instagram, if you report someone, I think they either block them or restrict them or do something, but it’s really important that whatever you do, your only communication is to people of authority, whether that be to management of that social media profile or you’re sending… You’re sending it to another person, just so that you have a record of it, that’s like on a time and date stamp of what’s going on, send it to your friends, send it… Send it to yourself.
I recommend a lot of people just keep an email thread where every time something happens, just take a screenshot, add it and just email it to yourself and just keep that thread going, because the last thing you’re gonna wanna do when something actually reaches that “tipping point” of concern is have to go back and try to remember everything that happened, and then you get things wrong and that it can be contested, but if you’re doing it in real time, it’s such an easy process to just email it to yourself or text it to yourself. I text myself like a thousand times a day, different notes and memories, but all of them are time and date stamped at the time I send it to myself and it’s… All of that stuff is admissible in court, should it be needed later.
Brett McKay: Okay, so to reiterate, you don’t wanna respond because that’s just gonna egg them on, but you also don’t wanna block them because you don’t want them to start coming after you on a different medium that you’re not gonna be able to track, but then also it allows you to keep documenting their behavior, so you can use that later on if you need to. Well, Spencer, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Spencer Coursen: So, the book is called The Safety Trap, it is available on Amazon, it’s wherever your favorite books are sold. It’s available in hardcover, electronic PDF, and I did the audio book myself, so that’s thesafetytrap.com or the business is Coursen Security Group. That’s C-O-U-R-S-E-N-securitygroup.com. And I’m also on the socials, Instagram @s.coursen, Twitter, Spencer Coursen, I’m on LinkedIn. Hit me up, reach out, if you ever have any questions or concerns, I am always happy to help.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Spencer Coursen, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Spencer Coursen: This was so much fun. Thank you so much for inviting me.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Spencer Coursen, he is the author of the book, The Safety Trap. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about the book at his website, thesafetytrap.com. Also check out in our show notes at aom.is/safetytrap, where you can find links to resources, and we delve deeper into this topic.
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