It appeared that a private investigator and company officials thought they had the goods on 34-year-old Omar Thornton, a driver for Hartford Distributors, Inc., a local beer distributor employing about 65 drivers in the local Manchester, Conn. area. Thornton was under investigation for stealing beer from delivery trucks, and even Union representatives with Local 1035, after viewing a surveillance video showing Thornton committing a theft, had to admit they had a likely thief in their midst. On Tuesday morning company officials called Thornton into a conference room where they confronted him with their video and demanded he either resign or be fired. Thornton, who had worked for the company for a little over two years, didn't complain, contest or deny the allegations against him; but quietly agreed to resign. Indicating he needed a glass of water, he was accompanied by two employees, to include his Union representative, into a lunch room where he obtained his lunch box.
Thornton opened the red metal box, but instead of a sandwich or a bottle of water he withdrew two 9mm semiautomatic pistols (a shotgun and extra ammunition were later found in his vehicle) and began a deadly shooting rampage, beginning with the two employees accompanying him. He then alternatively walked and ran and hunted his victims throughout the company facility, shooting individuals, possibly targeting those at the termination meeting while shooting others at random, to include employees who attempted to flee the facility.
After killing eight and wounding another two he telephoned his mother, speaking to her for 10 minutes before police entered the building under an active shooter response. An uncle of Thornton's reports that the shooter told his mother "he had killed the five racists that was there that was bothering me," further indicating "the cops are going to come in so I am going to take care of myself." Thornton also called 911 himself, identifying himself as "the shooter over in Manchester," telling the emergency operator the reason he "shot this place up" was that it was racist and he and other black employees were treated badly. "This," he said, was "why he took it to my own hands and handled the problem," stating his "wish that he could have got more of the people." He then shot himself to death. Thornton's former girlfriend said he had a history of racial problems with co-workers at other jobs, believing he was denied pay raises because of his race, this even though he had been promoted at his current place of employment.
Incidents of Workplace Violence number 1.7 million crime victims every year, accounting for 1 of 6 of all violent crime victims across America, to include approximately 800 murders every calendar year. I have assisted government agencies, as well as public and private companies with potentially challenged employees for the past 20+ years. I have helped to assess the threat that an employee could pose to co-workers, customers and the public, and have participated in the termination or separation of hundreds of individuals over the years, doing so in a manner designed to be both sensitive to the needs of the individual and his/her company and co-workers. I usually offer suggestions as to how the company might be able to "save the employee," perhaps through anger management training, or allowing the employee to work at home for awhile, or perhaps time off without pay. But should the company decide to terminate the employee, I not only assisted in the termination, but worked to become the terminated employee's "new best friend," inserting myself between the individual and the company in a firewall-like manner designed to assist the former employee as he/she moved on with their life. This also allowed me to be in a position to assess the level of threat, if any, that the individual could then pose to himself and/or others, to include his former supervisors and co-workers.
I have learned after reviewing hundreds of Workplace Violence incidents that few are truly done in a vacuum, and that very few simply "snap" one day. And while the mother of Thornton's girlfriend perhaps tried to justify Thornton's acts of mass murder by stating "Everybody's got a breaking point," my experience is that such acts of violence always have pre-incident behavioral indicators, warning signs that are simply ignored, overlooked, or disregarded until the rare individual acts out in a murderous way. Thornton had allegedly said that his place of employment had "pushed him over the edge," this with suggestions by his girlfriend that he had been racially harassed in the workplace. (Thornton was one of 14 employees of color and one of four African Americans at the company, this while law enforcement reported that all of his victims were White.) Company officials, workplace union officials and concerned government agencies have no record of any complaint of racial discrimination by Thornton, suggesting that his perception of his own reality may have been far different than the reality in his workplace. Another employee stated "Hispanic and Black employees said they had never seen any incidents of discrimination as alleged by Thornton."
As most know, terminations are critical incidents in the life of the person being fired, something 10's of thousands have unfortunately learned the hard way over the past few years. To conduct a successful termination, especially in the case of any employee with a questionable history of behavior, such needs to be carefully orchestrated to insure, as best as possible, that the administrative process takes place without the results of yesterday in Conn. Usually company Corporate Security, Legal Counsel and Human Resources representatives, along with management and if appropriate, a union representative, and an outside behavioral consultant meet together to discuss the need for termination or other significant personnel action. If termination is the manner of resolution selected by the company, then the termination process must be carefully considered, to include how and when the termination will be conducted, who will be present, what benefits will be afforded the terminated employee, and who will follow up with the former employee to help him ease into his "next employment life," this while continuing to access the potential threat he might present. In the case of Hartford Distributors, they allegedly employed a private detective to follow the Thornton, the beer delivery man, on his route, allegedly taking pictures of him stealing beer. What could have been missing in this deadly equation was a working assessment of the level of threat, if any, that Thornton, a registered firearm owner whom authorities stated had no permanent place of residence, could present to himself and others.
When you are taking away someone's job, i.e., their very livelihood, you must consider the impact on the person and the level of threat he could present. I have seen terminated employees act out violently, like Thornton, in a matter of minutes after termination, and in one case such an individual waited seven years before acting out violently in his former place of employment. In my case I have seen both private behavioral and private security consultants as well as off duty law enforcement officers on the scene of such a termination, and at times a surveillance could be placed on the terminated individual for a number of days after the termination to insure that he didn't abruptly return to the workplace to commit an act of revenge or violence.
While alleged acts of racism can and have provoked individuals to acts out violently, there is obviously no justification for murder, much less mass murder. If Thornton felt he was the victim of racism, he should have reported this to appropriate officials. There were many channels of resolution that would have been open to Thornton, but using two guns to mow down his co-workers, much in the same murderous way that University of Alabama Professor Amy Bishop, who murdered three and wounded 3, or U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan who murdered 13 innocent soldiers and wounded another 32 at Ft. Hood, TX, last year, appears to be simply the act of a disgruntled individual who blamed others for his problems and decided to make them suffer as he felt he had suffered. With two guns in his lunch box and another weapon and ammunition in his vehicle, one must conclude that Thornton had anticipated he would be terminated and had planned out his actions that fatal morning, something his employer may, unfortunately, have failed to do.
And lastly, by taking his own life in this cowardly way, Thornton has precluded us from even considering his allegations against others. All he has done is to cause life-long pain and suffering for nine extended families, to include his own, by hunting down and killing so many of his co-workers after he was apparently caught red-handed in a criminal act. (Note - one of his victims was simply delivering ketchup and mustard to the company - not someone who could have harassed Thornton in any way.) And for other companies across America, there are resources that can help you plan and construct safe terminations and follow ups with such employees. Use them to prevent such occurrences across the U.S. workplace!
NOTE: A reader of this column wrote me indicating that in her opinion my analysis reflected a narrow point of view. She opined that "I failed to appreciate the difficulty she felt that even educated people have in Conn making a complaint about discrimination," suggesting that victims of discrimination simply quit their jobs instead of fighting against the alleged acts. The writer believed that Thornton had been "given crummy routes and at times his truck was packed incorrectly making it harder for him to do his job," and that he "often worked until 1:30 AM making deliveries." She wrote of her lack of success in filing a complaint of discrimination with "CHRO," Conn's agency for complaints of discrimination in the workplace, against a business in that state, suggesting that to do so was "a waste of time."
The writer went on to suggest that "Thornton was set up," and that the video (of him allegedly stealing beer) did not clearly show him stealing, something that would be hard to say without specific evidence to support such a claim, noting the writer acknowledged her allegations were based on second hand information. Suggesting her opinion that the Union "was in bed with the company and the Union reps were all White, she indicated she knew that Thornton's best friend at the company (someone who wasn't Black), saw the harrassment claimed by Thornton first hand." If so, I hope he is interviewed by investigators as they seek the reason for this act of mass murder. Finally the writer, while acknowledging that "shooting people was not a good decision," suggested "when pushed to the edge, people don't make good reasoned decisions." (FYI - as of 8/5/10, it has been reported that no evidence of Thornton's alleged photographic evidence of racial harassment, to include drawings on the walls of his workplace that he said he took pictures of, have been found on his cell phone.)
Most will remember the confrontation that took place between a White Cambridge, Mass. police officer and a Black Harvard professor last July. The police officer, responding to a report of a home burglary in progress, encountered a man who initially refused to cooperate and the situation quickly got out of hand. In a report entitled "Miss Opportunities, Shared Responsibilities," a group of law enforcement officers, community members and experts on conflict resolution suggested that both individuals missed opportunities "to ratchet down" their confrontation, one that would set off yet another national debate on race and class. Some would side with the professor, indicating their belief that this was a clear example of racial profiling and police excess, while others would say that had the professor simply viewed the officer as trying to protect himself and resolve the situation, had he responded as he would have wanted to be responded to were their roles reversed, their chance meeting would never have ignited the way it did. President Obama initially offered his opinion that the police officer had "acted stupidly," this without knowledge of the entire situation, perhaps showing over-reacting can occur at any level.
While most have experienced some form of discrimination in their life, the writer is correct that I will never know or fully appreciate the challenges that some of my fellow humans have felt. My bottom line is that there are individuals, Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, etc., who will always pull the race card out of their emotional deck as the first card they play. I hope that my children, or at least my grandchildren will live to see the day that such a card not only not need to be played, but is entirely removed from every person's deck. What are the chances?
For more information concerning personal and family safety and security, to obtain a free copy of our DVD “Protecting Children from Predators,” to find out the identity and location of sexual offenders in your community and neighborhood, and to learn how to get the new iPhone, iPod, and Blackberry application “Silent Bodyguard,” one that with just one-button allows you to send a personal distress message to multiple people and transmits your exact GPS coordinates every 60 seconds, go to www.LiveSecure.org or the itunes website.