Officials say the goal of the Behavioral Threat Management Unit is
to prevent volatile situations from escalating into violence
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
“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.”
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
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
“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.
“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.”