Cole joins UWPD as director of threat intervention services

Feb. 4, 2014

by John Lucas

One of UW-Madison’s more unusual recent hires is also one of its most important.

Chris Cole, director of threat intervention services, occupies a new full-time position focusing on a cohesive assessment and response process for potential campus safety threats.

Cole comes to UWPD after more than 30 years with the FBI and United States Marine Corps. He began his new role on Nov. 4. Inside UW recently sat down with Cole, who plans to further introduce himself to campus through information sessions later this semester.

Q. You have one of the more unusual roles on campus. Can you describe your work?

Cole: As chair of the threat team, I work with a talented group of individuals from throughout the university community, including the Office of Human Resources, University Housing, Office of Legal Affairs, the Division of Student Life and University Health Services, among others. We evaluate threats to the university and develop strategies to mitigate them. Our goal is for faculty to teach, researchers to research and students to learn in a safe and secure environment.

Q. People might not yet understand the work or concept of threat assessment. How did it come about and what does it look like on a daily basis?

A. The threat team concept was developed in a response to school and workplace violence. The idea that people just snap with no warning signs isn't accurate. There is a clear progression before a violent act occurs. In the vast majority of cases, the offender planned the attack and often voiced their plans to others. It was also realized that preventing violence requires a multi-disciplined approach. It is not strictly a function of law enforcement. The threat team brings together a diverse group of resources to do this.

Q. Can you talk about your past work with the FBI and how it relates to the university setting?

A. I spent 26 years as an FBI agent, the last five as the supervisor of the Madison office.  When I first started, the bureau, like most law enforcement agencies, responded to crimes after they occurred, investigated them, and attempted to hold those who committed them accountable.  After the attacks of Sept. 11, the mindset changed to one of prevention and getting ahead of threats while also respecting individuals’ civil rights and liberties. This is the perspective I bring to the team. I served as the FBI on-scene commander and supervised the follow-up investigation into the mass shooting at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek in August of 2012 and know what a crisis response looks like. My goal and the goal of the threat team is to ensure that we don't have to respond to this type of incident at UW.

Q. Can you talk generally about the kinds of threat cases the UW has evaluated since the tragedy at Virginia Tech?

A. The cases have involved a variety of individuals to include students, staff and non-affiliated individuals who have engaged in threatening behavior.

Q. What is the most common misconception about the threat team and its work?

A. One of the common misconceptions is that the team is about profiling. It isn't. Profiling looks at an individual of concern and compares them demographically with other individuals who have carried out attacks.  Profiling is about trying to predict who might become violent. The threat team looks at the facts and circumstances of each case and individual independently. It focuses on behavior and is about violence prevention. I think this is an important distinction to make. 

Q. Although this is your full-time job, we understand that you rely on the campus community. How can people support your work? 

A. The one threat that we definitely can't mitigate is the one we don't know about. I would ask people to go about their daily routines and take full advantage of what the university has to offer, but to also be aware of their surroundings and be observant. We all have developed a pretty good sense for when something doesn't seem right.  When you get that feeling or see something, let someone know. That means escalating your concern to a supervisor in housing, student life or human resources. You can also always call UWPD at 608-264-COPS if you aren’t sure who to talk to. The number is staffed 24/7.

If you have questions, would like more information, or would like to invite Cole to speak to your group, email cole4@wisc.edu.