Response to Pickford’s death threats flawed!

Philip Grindell
Written by Philip Grindell
response to pickford's death threats flawed

To many, the headline ‘Bodyguards hired to protect Jordan Pickford and his family after Everton goalkeeper receives death threats’ would appear to be a sensible approach to the abuse and threats that Jordan Pickford has received. The problem is that it is deeply flawed and will do very little to keep either him or his family safe and nothing to help them feel safer.

Jordan Pickford is the goalkeeper for Everton Football Club. During a recent derby with their neighbours and arch-rivals, Liverpool he was involved in a tackle with Liverpool’s star defender Virgil van Dijk. The tackle caused van Dijk to be carried off with a significant injury and has been described by fans and pundits as ‘an assault’ rather than a tackle. The controversy increased by the apparent lack of action by the referee.

What has followed is a campaign of hate, death threats and abuse towards Pickford, much of it via social media, although invariably behind the scenes there is likely to be more abuse possibly hostile that we are unaware of.

The truth is that when we see ‘dogpiling’ and the abuse and threats that follow these incidents the impact on the target of such abuse is frightening, alarming and causes real anxiety and is proven to impact performance. So, it is completely understandable that Everton and Pickford have opted to employ bodyguards or minders.

It is worth me stating from the outset that this has nothing to do with the competence of those tasked with protecting Pickford and his family. My statement is supported by proven academic and operationally experience following years of successfully ‘protecting’ high profile and well targeted politicians and other high-profile people.

Research has shown that those that pursue the famous andpost death threats, often driven by a sense of grievance, pose a far greater risk of serious harm and death that do terrorists and criminals. (Mullen et al., 2009a) Terrorists and criminals may cause significant harm but it is seldom targeted in the same way and the issue is what is termed ‘fixated’ or ‘fixated loners’.

The targeting of Pickford is an increasingly common pattern and one that Defuse have significant experience in. The vast majority of those abusing Pickford pose no physical risk. Easy to say and in many ways that contradicts how the targeted of such death threats and abuse feels, but that is exactly why expertise is so crucial, so as not to overreact and waste resources where they will be infective.

Research has demonstrated that the vast majority of these abusers, who we term Howlers, are just that…noise. The term was introduced by Calhoun and Weston in their research and is called ‘Hunters and Howlers’ (Calhoun and Weston, 2003) If we pause and think of wolves…if you have ever been in the wild when a pack of wolves is in the area, their howling is extremely unnerving and can be scary. However, when they howl, they are not hunting. When they hunt, you invariably won’t even be aware they are after you…until it is too late. That is where the terms ‘Hunter and Howlers’ comes from.

Research into attacks on public figures, albeit specifically politicians, informs us that those that make and send threats are not to the ones to worry about. It is the fixated and predatory loner who is likely to become the genuine threat. The pathologically fixated present the problem to security services of a large group of individuals who, although they may be a nuisance, very rarely progress to seriously disruptive behaviours, let alone overt violence.

The research undertaken for the UK Home Office during a three-year research project on the fixate by Mullen and others (Mullen et al., 2009b) identified that physical protection measures alone have proven to be ineffective against fixated threats. If you are in any doubt of this, think about the attack on Reagan. Any protection that Pickford may have and no matter how professional they may be, they won’t have the resources available to the US Secret Service.

So, the obvious question is ’what does work?’

In the circumstances that Pickford and his family find themselves, they are undoubtedly subjected to significant online abuse and quite possibly abuse in the street by rival fans. As stated, that will be scary unnerving and cause huge anxiety. All of that is a perfect storm to see a reduction in performance. Everton may have Sports Psychologists available, however they may not be the appropriate resource to help in this matter. Effective therapeutic intervention can be helpful with the support of experienced clinical/forensic psychologists or psychotherapists. They can provide expertise in understanding and learning how to manage the emotional harm caused by the trolling. This will help and defuse the impact of hypervigilance and allowing perceptions to take over.

From a security perspective, proper management of the social media accounts is vital. However, what is critical is to understand and be able to properly analyse and interpret genuine threats. Defuse specialises in this, filtering out the noise and finding those that elicit warning behaviours. It is important to conduct behavioural analysis on those posts that are of real alarm to establish if any ‘Red Flags’ are apparent and how to manage these. Mismanaging communications and individuals of concern can escalate rather than defuse any threat.

Secondly, a real understanding of how these fixated individuals may act and that their predatory behaviour will require a fully holistic approach, from the security guard on the gate at Everton to friends and family. A community approach to understand and help identify ‘leakage’ can be a key element. In the case of the Parisian teacher murdered last week, we know that the person responsible approached a number of people and whilst no direct death threats were made by the subject, asking them to point out the teacher, and eventually paying those who helped. Anyone making enquiries or talking about approaching Pickford or his family should be reported.

Stalkers are a heterogeneous group with very different motivations and associated risks. They require genuine expertise from a coordinated and integrated security and mental health perspective to not just defuse the threat but also to manage the stalker.

Providing a wraparound protection detail for the Pickford family may appear to be the obvious solution, however very often those protected don’t feel safer. Secondly, when do you withdraw that protection? When social media goes quiet? How do you withdraw and reassure the family that they are now ‘safe’?

For further information or help please contact Defuse

[email protected]

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