Review of the San Jose Rail Yard Mass Shooting (May 26, 2021)

In this mid-month special issue, the Insider Signal team shares our thoughts on the incident and our advice and research on prevention of workplace violence.

Incident Background

Nine employees of a Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority light rail facility in San Jose were shot and killed in a mass shooting perpetrated by Samuel Cassidy (Age 57) on Wednesday, May 26, 2021. Cassidy was found dead and is believed to have taken his own life as authorities closed in. Cassidy was an employee of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.

Personal Life Signals

There were several warning signs in Cassidy's personal life prior to the incident:

CBS SF BayArea KPIX5 reported:

  • Cassidy had previously been detained by U.S. Customs agents five years ago because he had writings about terrorism and hating his workplace.

  • Bomb-making materials were found (after the shooting) in what was believed to be Cassidy’s locker at the VTA yard.

  • A massive cache of weapons, ammunition and over a dozen Molotov cocktails were found inside Cassidy's home.

  • Cassidy had three automatic handguns and more than 30 illegal magazines of ammunition when he went on his rampage.

  • Cassidy's ex-wife Cecilia Nelms claimed Cassidy had anger issues but never physically harmed her, Cassidy was nervous and unfriendly around most people and had talked about harming coworkers on more than one occasion.

  • An ex-girlfriend of Cassidy alleged he forced sexual acts on her and showed signs of being bipolar, with mood swings exacerbated by alcohol.

  • Doug Suh, a decades-long neighbor of Cassidy’s, described Cassidy as “mean” and untalkative.

Eric Levenson, Stella Chan, Cheri Mossburg and Paul P. Murphy, of CNN cited CBS SF BayArea KPIX5 and reported:

  • Nelms claimed Cassidy complained he was assigned harder jobs than his coworkers, often spoke angrily about his coworkers and bosses, and at times directed his anger at her.

Christal Hayes of USA TODAY comments that law enforcement encounters many people who have similar signs that do not go on to commit heinous acts of violence. Hayes' article features excerpts from an interview of Dr. Ziv Cohen, a forensic and clinical psychiatrist who consults on murder cases and serves as an expert witness in criminal trials, who lamented:

When you deconstruct what happened, you realize that there were a lot of warning signs with people like this. The challenge is we live in a free society. We cannot simply take action against someone who is showing indicators that something might happen. It's hard because a crime has to happen before an arrest. You can't always anticipate behavior.

Workplace Signals

There were reportedly several warning signs in the workplace in advance of the attack beyond the CBS SF BayArea KPIX5 reporting of finding bomb making materials in Cassidy's locker after the shooting.

Peter Snarr and Taylor Bisacky of Nexstar Media Inc.'s KRON4 reported four separate workplace incidents prior to the shooting involving Cassidy that had been elevated to management purportedly revealed in published VTA internal documents:

  • July 16, 2019: Cassidy was sent home without pay for two days after refusing to follow company policy regarding signing out a two-way radio.

  • January 29, 2020: A verbal altercation took place between Cassidy and a coworker. Following the incident, the coworker reported to a supervisor another unnamed employee had stated of Cassidy “He scares me. If someone was to go postal, it’d be him.”

  • October 21, 2020: Cassidy refused to attend a mandatory CPR recertification class citing concerns about COVID despite a number of reasonable accommodations provided to Cassidy.

  • November 28, 2020. After having trouble clocking in for a work shift, Cassidy inappropriately used a VTA two-way radio for personal communication (against policy) and left work without permission instead of resolving the problem.

Insider Signal Team Notes & Analysis

It is imperative employers take measures designed to prevent workplace violence before it happens. As of July 19, 2021, MassShootingTracker reports 441 mass shootings (with 4 or more shot, including the shooter) in the US so far in 2021.

Like KPIX5, Rachael Levy of The Wall Street Journal reported Customs and Border Control detained Cassidy upon reentry into the U.S. from the Philippines in 2016 and he was found carrying terrorism literature and a book of hateful comments, complaints, and grievances about the Santa Clara VTA. That information should have been sent to the VTA in a manner ensuring receipt and acknowledgement.

A staff member involved in an altercation with Cassidy confided in a colleague that Cassidy was the type of person to "go postal." Another employee characterized Cassidy as "pissed off" at certain employees. HR and Security should set up a reporting system in which staff can be comfortable relaying concerns without fearing reprisal, disbelief, or indifference.

Someone who has manifested a series of troubling behaviors should be directed to an employee assistance program. In such cases, the company might conduct an examination to determine psychological fitness for duty before allowing the employee back on site.

The Insider Signal Team noted many references to a US Department of Labor publication titled 'DOL Workplace Violence Program' by others writing about this unfortunate topic. It serves as an example of a program for preventing and dealing with workplace violence organizations may wish to adapt for their own organizations.

Workplace Violence Mitigation Information

Christopher B. Dolan of the Dolan Law Firm, PC authored a June 2021 SF Weekly article titled 'How to Maintain a Safe Workplace' by of SF Weekly details behaviors that may provide a warning of future workplace violence, including threats of violence, intimidation, speaking about weapon ownership, paranoia, angry and argumentative behavior, antisocial behavior such as commenting favorably about violence in the news, and vindictive behavior. The article sheds light on legal responsibilities of California employers and legal recourse options available to employees in California in regard to preventing workplace violence. Dolan writes:

Workplace violence is becoming an epidemic. No one should take threats lightly. Employees should report the warning signs and employers should act promptly.

Sandy Smith of Endeavor Business Media, LLC's EHS Today compiled and published a list of recommendations for preventing workplace violence from the FBI and a study commissioned by American Association of Occupational Health Nurses Inc. (AAOHN):

  • Management should conduct a thorough organizational risk assessment and develop workplace violence prevention policies and programs that address potential risks in environmental design (security cameras, key card access), administrative controls and behavioral strategies.

  • Programs should clearly define the spectrum of workplace violence (ranging from harassment to homicide), delineate employee responsibilities for recognizing and reporting signs, and be shared with every employee. All programs should promote zero tolerance.

  • Ask for and integrate employee ideas when developing and implementing a violence prevention program.

  • Create a confidential and seamless reporting system. Encourage workers to report any and all concerns to a single representative, such as an occupational health and safety professional or human resource manager.

  • Incorporate a variety of communications tools such as posters, newsletters, staff meetings and new employee materials.

  • When training employees, review common warning signs, behavioral traits and how to recognize potential problems. Employees should also understand that each case is different, and to not limit at risk behavior to a standard profile.

  • Involve all employees in workplace violence prevention programs. Training should be ongoing and mandatory for every employee.

  • As an employee, actively participate in all education and awareness programs. If you do not have a violence prevention program at work, request information from your occupational health department, human resource department or manager.

  • As an employee, if you recognize that a colleague exhibits at risk behavior, report any concerns to your human resources representative or occupational health professional.

The UK government agency Health and Safety Executive (HSE) suggests training staff in defusing techniques and interpersonal skills can help prevent workplace violence. They suggest training should include discussion of the importance of self-control, non-aggression, assertive communication, acknowledging the concerns and statements of others, and using humor to defuse situations.

The HSE also participated in producing a European Commission guide entitled 'Preventing Workplace Harassment and Violence' with detailed recommendations on pages 6 and 7 of the document.

Kimberly Larsen, Esq. of Workplace Answers, a web-based training company specializing in workplace violence prevention and workplace harassment law, wrote an article published by India including helpful lists of personal characteristics and work behaviors that may serve as warning signs for workplace violence. Larsen notes several other possible warning signs, including expressed heightened interest in violence and weapons, sudden changes in financial status such as withdraws from company retirement plans, frequent job changes or gaps in employment history, changes in family or marital status or other signs of increasing social isolation. She also details prevention strategies and obligations including providing a physically safe workplace, having an injury and illness prevention program, having responsible hiring practices, ensuring responsible supervision that can detect warning signs and empower and encourage employees to detect and report warning signs, and establishing a critical response plan. Larsen's article reveals additional sources of pertinent information:

CareerBuilder's Rachel Zupek details six recommendations for managing workplace conflict in a CNN article. The recommendations include choosing your battles, expecting conflict, using neutral and explanatory language instead of judgmental remarks or sweeping generalizations, practicing proactive preventive maintenance instead of withdrawing or avoidance that prevent or delay resolution, active listening in which you avoid interruption and truly seek to understand what the other person is saying, and ensuring you are held accountable in resolving shared conflict.

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