Chris Cole was a 10-year-old living in suburban New York when four Vietnam War protesters detonated a bomb inside UW's Sterling Hall in 1970, killing one and injuring three.
Three of the four perpetrators were arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison for the bombing. The fourth, Leo Burt, remains at large for his alleged crimes. Sterling Hall, a common protest site at the time, was targeted because of the research work the university did for the U.S. military during the war.
After college, some time in the Marines and a series of promotions at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Cole became supervisor for Madison's FBI office. Part of his role there was to try to track down Burt.
Now, in the newly created position of director of threat intervention services for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Cole, 53, is charged with a different yet related task: to prevent incidents like the Sterling Hall bombing and the more recent shooting death at Purdue University from happening here.
His job combines old-school investigative tactics with new-style information-gathering techniques. The idea is to be proactive, not reactive.
"We're about prevention," Cole says. "We position ourselves to get in front of the threat."
Any success in doing so, he adds, "will be based on what didn't happen."
The 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech left 33 dead, including the assailant, and 17 injured. The massacre spurred universities and colleges across the country to create threat-intervention positions.
UW-Madison took its first step in late 2007 with the creation of a multidisciplinary team composed of university officials and campus law enforcement. It was tasked with reviewing, investigating and responding to threats, says Kevin Helmkamp, associate dean of students at the UW. Cole's position was created to bring together the moving parts of threat assessment and necessary action.
"The addition of the director position reflects the complexity of the task at an institution like UW-Madison," says Helmkamp. "Having a staff member who is solely focused on the many aspects of threat assessment and response creates an improved ability to respond in an appropriate and timely manner. It also will allow us to move the effort forward in key areas like campus outreach, record-keeping and follow-up."
University officials faced a challenge in quantifying the need for the new position.
"Because of the nature of the work we do -- and ideally we prevent incidents from occurring -- demonstrating the need for a full-time position needed thoughtful examination in times of tight budget," says Helmkamp. "It is hard for us to measure what did not occur because of our work."
Some of the day-to-day operations of the threat-assessment team have changed since Cole came on board in November, but the goal remains the same, says Helmkamp. The team, now under Cole's leadership, will continue to "assess and coordinate a response to threat situations at the university," he says. "The team will develop strategies to intervene, to interrupt and to mitigate threats posed by students, faculty, staff, visitors and others unaffiliated with the campus."
Helmkamp, who co-chaired the threat team prior to Cole's hiring, says a national search netted 40 applicants for the $80,000-a-year position.
"Chris' knowledge of the university was a plus, but even beyond that his experience was just outstanding," he says. "I am confident that he will set a very high standard for this type of work at a major university. I think he will soon develop into a state and national leader in this field."
Intent and capability
While no two threats are the same, investigating and dealing with them boils down to two factors: intent and capability.
"When we receive notice of a threat, we ask ourselves two things," says Cole. "'Do they really intend to carry it out, and do they have the means to do it?' Someone might say they want to send a missile through the Kohl Center, but do they have means to do so?"
On the other hand, Cole admits, "It doesn't take very much these days to hurt and kill a lot of people. [The threat] that concerns us all is the mass shooter. It's a low probability but very high consequence."
Another, more tangible threat is that of domestic violence, says Cole. A case where someone is upset over a breakup and is capable of doing harm may be more likely to turn tragic if the assailant knows the victim's residence and daily habits. "Anyone with two hands has the capability to strangle someone," he says.
Recent developments in technology have expanded the options for making threats. "Your ways to threaten someone 20 years ago were fairly limited," says Cole. "These days, a threat can be in person verbally, online, written -- you name it. It's however the person chooses to communicate the threat."
Cole deals with all threats in the same, systematic way. First, he gauges the severity and validity of the threat and devises a safety plan for possible victims. Then, people may be assigned to monitor the home, workplace or school of the individual making the threat. Interviews with all parties are conducted along with continued monitoring.
For cases on campus that are deemed an emergency, a uniformed UW Police officer will contact the individual making the threat and a detective will investigate further, gathering information to make a recommendation for action that will be passed along to the threat team. If the individual making the threat is not affiliated with the university, Cole and his team reach out to the local law enforcement agency to gain background on the potential suspect and to inform the agency of their investigation.
For non-emergency cases, Cole will initiate a background investigation into the threat-maker by an officer or detective who has been trained in threat assessment. Cole will then follow up with the segments of campus most directly involved with the threat and oversee the coordinated response.
"A lot of it goes back to old-school investigation techniques and getting out there talking to people," says Cole. "That's the most important investigative skill we have. What we want to avoid is letting someone fall through the cracks."
To stay on top of active cases, Cole uses a multifaceted approach that includes a database created by a company called Maxient that tracks student conduct and discipline. He also relies on police reports.
A major part of his job is to develop a cohesive tracking system and procedure for threats. "You learn as you go," he says. "But what's really going to help [me] develop a good tracking system is working the cases."
One of Cole's first goals is simply to let the campus community know his position exists. "The threat we can't deal with is the one we don't know about," he says. "We need to make sure that people know we're here and that they're comfortable calling us."
To help get the word out, Cole has spent a considerable amount of time since he joined the university meeting with faculty and campus groups. His outreach efforts will also include working with BadgerWatch, the university's neighborhood and community watch program.
The threat-assessment team includes staff from university housing, human resources, the academic personnel office, the employee assistance program, the office of legal affairs, university communications, and counseling and consultation services. These individuals have also spread the word about Cole's work.
Currently there is no student representative on the threat team, but Helmkamp says one would be considered if a threat made it necessary. Cole, however, says having a student on the threat team could raise confidentiality issues.
The bystander effect
It may seem there are more threats and incidents of large-scale violence these days, especially at schools and universities. But that simply isn't the case, says Dr. Gene Deisinger, who serves as deputy police chief and director of threat management at Virginia Tech and is a national expert on threat assessment.
"There has been no increase in targeted crime," says Deisinger, who provided consultation and training for the UW threat team early on. Through technology and the Internet, "there's a broader dissemination of information -- we're just more aware of it and are hearing more about it.
"Mass shootings are actually phenomenally rare and are less than 1% of all homicides in the U.S.," he adds.
A 2010 report by the Secret Service, U.S. Dept. of Education and FBI dispels another misconception about crimes and threats on college campuses: They're not all perpetrated by students. Citing the report, which reviewed 272 incidents of violence between 1900 and 2008, Deisinger notes that 40% of assailants were currently enrolled students, 20% were former students, 20% were indirectly affiliated with the school (such as those who were or had been in a relationship with a current student), 11% were current or former faculty or staff, and 9% had no affiliation.
Deisinger says one of the biggest hurdles in threat intervention and assessment is "overcoming the bystander effect." Universities and colleges need to combat the inaction of those who hear of threats through vigorous, active outreach, while taking care not to be consumed with irrelevant information.
"We strive to strike a balance there that will never be perfect," Deisinger says.
A major part of that balance is early identification of possible threats and concise follow-up. "You can't connect the dots if you first don't collect the dots," adds Deisinger, who grew up in New Lisbon.
Deisinger says he'd like to see more information on the successful interventions of threats. "There's not a lot of reporting of averted incidents," he says. "There's nothing interesting about something when nothing happened."
As campus security makes the leap to threat intervention, Deisinger warns that all practices and procedures should be a "systematic approach based on science and problem-solving." In essence, there's no crystal ball that will offer a glimpse of the future.
"It's not a predictive approach, it's a mitigated one," he says.
And that's why, when dealing with universities that have so many moving parts -- independent schools, departments, students and employees -- having a multidisciplinary approach to bring in all parts of campus is so important. A threat-maker can be a student, but also an employee, so talking not only with students and professors but also with the human resources department is key, says Deisinger: "Threat management is the epitome of community policing."
Acting on a tip
While it may be difficult to quantify crises averted, UW Police Chief Susan Riseling points to one example from 2010 involving a now-former student.
Acting on a tip about possible child pornography, the FBI served a search warrant on Matthew Hendrickson. During the search, the FBI found "young boys' underwear, sex toys, rope, duct tape and many condoms. As a result, Hendrickson was expelled from the university," recalls Riseling.
Later, in the summer of 2011, through investigation and search warrants, "information was developed that Hendrickson blamed the university official who had handled the expulsion for ruining his life, and had done research on the official and his family and determined that the official had two sons," says Riseling. "Additional information indicated that Hendrickson fantasized about abducting and killing young boys and wanted to strangle the university official and his/her sons. A safety [and] mitigation plan was developed and implemented." No physical harm came to the official or his family.
Hendrickson later pleaded guilty to federal child pornography charges and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
A little bit of excitement
Cole is casual and unassuming, and you could pass him on the street without noticing. He's tall, has a short, post-military haircut and dresses in earth tones. He's quick to answer questions and asks his own in reply -- a useful law-enforcement tactic.
After graduating from the University of Virginia with a bachelor's degree in American government in 1983, Cole joined the Marine infantry officer school. He served in the Marines, joined the FBI, and worked in Chicago, Rockford, Texas and as part of the Homeland Security unit in Washington, D.C. In 2008, he became the supervisor of Madison's FBI office, where he stayed until retiring last October.
Cole says he was interested in law enforcement as a child, so joining the FBI after the Marines was a logical progression.
"I was driven to find something that has a little bit of excitement," he says. "I wanted something that when I looked back on my career, I could say I made a difference and did something that someone with a middle-class suburban upbringing wouldn't normally get exposed to."
That upbringing included an early introduction to work. In high school, Cole delivered newspapers, mowed lawns and worked summers as a lifeguard, where he taught water aerobics "to elderly women in those flowering bathing caps" at the local health club.
Cole and his wife have four adult children. Three of them are finished with college, and the fourth is expected to graduate this year.
Outside of work, Cole is an avid cyclist and athlete and can be found running with his dogs to unwind after work.
While in the FBI, Cole says he learned to "make potentially life-saving decisions under stressful conditions." That involved at times making "decisions based on the facts available, not just the facts you wish you had," he adds.
Cole says the sheer number of students and employees and the fragmented nature of the university can prove challenging, but a safe and secure campus is an achievable goal.
Though his own job is to stay one step ahead of threats, Cole says there is no need for people to "walk around as if they're being followed by a dark cloud."
He offers the same advice he's given to his children: "People [need] to be aware and alert, but also to go about their daily lives."