Texas county launches unit to investigate stalking, prevent domestic violence
Officials say the goal of the Behavioral Threat Management Unit is to prevent volatile situations from escalating into violence
St. John Barned-Smith
HARRIS COUNTY, Texas — A new unit at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office could handle cases as varied as a jealous ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend stalking a former partner; an obsessed fan of a local TV celebrity, or an angry co-worker harassing someone in the office.
The goal of the Behavioral Threat Management Unit is not arrests, though. Its mission is to prevent volatile situations from escalating into harm or violence.
“It’s up to us, as investigators, to try and figure out why this person is acting in the manner that they’re acting in,” said Brad Rudolph, the unit’s manager. “And then, what can we do to turn him around so that someone doesn’t become the victim of a serious bodily injury or a homicide?”
Nationally, about 7.5 million Americans are victims of stalking or similar harassment every year, according to the National Stalking Resource Center. Stalking and similar behavior is particularly common in domestic violence situations — approximately 60 percent of women and 45 percent of men who are victims of stalking are stalked by a current or former intimate partner.
While police departments in Los Angeles and New York have fielded threat management units for decades, the unit is new at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.
Rudolph spent decades in uniform at the Houston Police Department. He spent about 12 years working dignitary protection and investigating threats against police officers or their family members — and then in the last several years of his career at the police department in a threat management unit.
His office is full of photos of many of the people he helped protect: Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush; actors George Clooney and Betty White.
During his tenure in HPD, he became interested in threat management after learning about high-profile stalking cases that ended in tragedy, such as the death of Rebecca Schaeffer in 1989, an actress killed at her West Hollywood home by a crazed fan who had stalked her for three years. The slaying helped prompt some of America’s first anti-stalking laws.
“Maybe there’s a different way of doing it instead of just reacting to situations,” Rudolph recalled thinking. “Maybe there’s a way that we can be proactive and try to prevent things from occurring.”
Harris County has weathered its fair share of similar incidents — including the 2014 killing of the Stay family by a man who’d stalked his ex-wife to her sister’s home in Spring, and the 2017 killing of Clint Greenwood, chief deputy constable at the Precinct 3 Constable’s Office. Greenwood was gunned down walking to his Baytown office by a man named William Kenny, who had become embittered after his divorce in 2012 and created a list of dozens of county officials — including Greenwood — he’d blamed for his misfortunes.
And in November, Houston police charged Robin Chiswell, 60, with stalking. The man was accused of sending threatening letters to noted local philanthropist Carolyn Farb and former Texas A&M University coach Kevin Sumlin.
Rudolph retired from HPD in 2017 but stayed in touch with Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and HCSO Major Mike Lee, who both served stints at HPD before moving to the sheriff’s office. Last year, they created the threat management unit, which began operating Jan. 6.
His three-person team is working through more than 150 stalking cases that Harris County sheriff’s deputies filed in 2019. Some cases will generate arrests, he said. But in other cases, investigators might perform “knock-and-talks” with potential suspects and warn them that their behavior has generated concerns.
“We’re not opposed to (arrests,)” Rudolph said. “It’s just not our main objective. Our main objective is to provide safeguards for victims.”
The unit comes as law enforcement agencies, businesses and other groups are more focused on preventing targeted violence, said Nicole Aguais, Texas chapter president of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals.
“We’re seeing a huge increase in people wanting to get involved in threat management,” she said.
That could mean stalking, but also other forms of targeted violence — from a workplace dispute to school shootings, she said.
“You’ve got to look at the big picture to understand what someone’s stabilizers and triggers are,” she said. “People don’t just snap. When you understand that grievance, you can understand why they moved up on the pathway to violence.”
Experts said the focus on threat management represents a “sea change” from past law enforcement policing strategies.
“Instead of just reacting to a crime that’s been committed, and gathering evidence and turning it over to prosecution and prosecuting a case, these cases are largely focused on prevention,” said J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist who has consulted extensively with the FBI, and who specializes in stalking cases.
Domestic violence prevention advocates cheered the new strategy, particularly in a region that suffers from dozens of domestic violence homicides every year, including numerous high-profile murders in past years in which the slayings came from killers who left a trail of troubling red flags or past behavior.
“It’s admirable they’re trying to come up with more creative ways to prevent violence,” said Amy Smith, deputy director at the Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council. “Doing a threat assessment might not lead to an arrest, but it could lead to a prevention” of a homicide or assault.
Gonzalez said he hopes to augment the unit in the coming months.
“It’s still a new unit but we know the demand is there,” he said. “These cases do come up. There’s a high potential for violence being carried out and we’re trying to mitigate it early on.”