This past Tuesday, August 20, 2019 Long Beach, CA police arrested a man for allegedly planning a mass shooting at the Long Beach Marriott, where he worked as a cook. Apparently he was upset about a “human resources issue”. No, this is by no means the first time that someone planned a mass shooting. Nor is it the first time a disgruntled employee planned a mass shooting at his/her place of employment. It does appear to be the most recent, though. It is also a story with a much happier ending than some of the more recent ones we’ve heard about in the news, because the police got to the potential shooter before he struck. How? A co-worker reported the threat and management called the police. I’d like to take this opportunity to look at some of the details of this scenario and see what we can learn from it–in the hopes that perhaps we too can avert such a tragedy in our own workplaces.
So, here are some more details: Rodolfo Montoya on Monday told a co-worker that he planned to come into work and shoot everyone he saw at the hotel. When police arrested Montoya at his home, they found an assault rifle, “multiple other firearms and hundreds of rounds of ammunition”, tactical gear and high-capacity magazines. The magazines are illegal in California. Police arrested him on suspicion of manufacturing and distributing assault weapons, possession of an assault weapon and making criminal threats. Per the police, he had “clear plans, intent, and means to carry out an act of violence that may have resulted in a mass casualty incident”. Police also say their preliminary investigation showed no criminal background that would have prevented him from obtaining firearms, though police did note that ‘in most cases” assault weapons are illegal in California. No one knows at this time whether he obtained any of his weapons legally.
Before I go further, let me point out two things that this employer got right: It took the co-worker’s report of the threat seriously and acted on it immediately. We can — and should– credit the hotel’s management team with acting properly and probably saving lives. With that said, is there more that an employer can do to minimize the chances of such a scenario even getting that far– or, dare I say it, maybe even prevent it altogether? Maybe. Let’s look at some more details. Another co-worker told the L.A. Times that Montoya made her uncomfortable. Specifically, she said, “Every time he comes and he look for me, and he touch me or give me a kiss on the head, I say, ‘Don’t touch me please, don’t kiss me,’ because the cameras are there, and I don’t like that,” As uncomfortable as she was, she did not report him. I’ll come back to that in a moment.
One of Montoya’s neighbors told him that another neighbor warned him to stay away from Montoya, telling him that Montoya had “all kinds of guns” in his R.V. It is not clear how the neighbor knew that and whether anyone ever supported those suspicions to the police. What do these details suggest? For one thing, it seems clear that Montoya’s co-workers knew, or at least sensed there was a problem with him. Clearly, with one sole exception others that knew of or sensed a problem were not comfortable coming forward to report it to management. I assume that the Marriott had a complaint or reporting procedure in place. Either way, just having a complaint or reporting procedure is not enough. Employers need to make sure employees know the procedure and know that their complaints will be taken seriously. That of course means that employers need to take all such complaints seriously and act upon them immediately, even if they don’t appear serious or don’t initially appear to have merit. Yes, the Marriott did so when it received a threat of a mass shooting.
Short of a specific threat of a mass shooting, though, what might your company do? Is it prepared to take complaints seriously and act upon them? If an employee reports that a co-worker makes him/her uncomfortable, are those reports taken seriously and acted upon? If HR has dealings with an employee is HR aware of signs of potential mental health issues? Does your company have an EAP? If so, does it encourage employees to use it? If not, does your company have a list of resources for counseling or other mental health services for referrals? Is there an atmosphere in your company where employees feel comfortable about reporting their concerns?
The Marriott caught this problem before, an unbelievable tragedy could occur. That is not in question there. If, being aware of signs of potential mental health issues or violent tendencies, could an employer perhaps catch the problem even earlier, so that it doesn’t escalate to the type of threat Montoya made? Perhaps. No, I am not suggesting that anything is a guarantee. Under the circumstances in which we find ourselves in today’s world, however, what do we have to lose by making sure that ALL employees are made aware of signs of mental illness, violent tendencies, anger issues and the like? What do we have to lose by strongly encouraging all employees to, in the words of the NYC Transit Authority, “If you see something, say something”? What do we have to lose by training employees (and providing regular follow-up training) on how to deal with threats or actual situations of violence, including active shooters?
Perhaps the bigger question is, “What do we have to lose by doing nothing?”
OK, I think I’ve made my point, so I’ll step down from the soapbox, now.
Watch my first of two television interviews on Stop My Crisis with Vivian Gaspar. Contents of this post are for educational/informational purposes only, are not legal advice, and do not create an attorney-client relationship. Consult with competent employment counsel in the state(s) in which you employ people with your specific questions.
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