A decade ago, Cottage Grove police Sgt. Randy McAlister was among the first to encounter the scene of a couple killed by a jealous ex-boyfriend as four children cowered nearby.
Despite repeated appeals to authorities for protection, Teri Lee and her boyfriend Timothy Hawkinson were killed by Steven Van Keuren, a jealous and disturbed former boyfriend. Van Keuren had violated several court orders that prohibited him from contacting Lee before he crept into the home with a handgun and killed them as they lay in bed in 2006. It still haunts McAlister.
“We didn’t do all we could,” McAlister, who was part of Washington County’s SWAT team at the time, said. “Teri Lee was really asking the justice system for help all the way up until her death.”
The murders became a turning point and sparked a mission for McAlister, who has spent the past decade researching how to prevent tragedies like the slayings of Lee and Hawkinson. He’s launched a threat assessment program at the Cottage Grove police department — the first of its kind in Minnesota — that could change how police interact with high-risk cases, such as Lee’s.
“Law enforcement is reactive,” McAlister said. “This is proactive, like preventive medicine. It’s hard to prove something that didn’t happen, but we know it works.”
Training is paramount
The murders were among the biggest cases in McAlister’s 18-year career. Since then, he has dedicated himself to preventing violence.
Last year, he became a certified threat manager by the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals, a nonprofit organization geared toward learning how to protect victims of stalking, harassment and threat situations.
Then in May, he trained five Cottage Grove patrol officers — or threat management officers — on how to connect with people who have demonstrated concerning behavior.
The officers spent half a day looking at research and learning about targeted violence, where a known attacker selects a particular target before the violent attack, such as stalking and domestic violence. Local advocacy groups also talked about protective orders and cycles of domestic violence. The officers also went through a weeklong crisis intervention team (CIT) training for handling mental health emergencies.
The man who shot two New Hope police officers outside a City Council meeting last year is an example of authorities not paying close attention to potential threats, McAlister said.
Raymond Kmetz, who was known to police long before the New Hope shooting, had undergone years of court-ordered mental health treatment. Kmetz’s case was “tailor-made for this kind of group,” McAlister said. Before he was killed by police after firing outside the meeting, Kmetz bounced in and out of at least one mental institution when he was found incompetent to stand trial in an unrelated case.
“The problem is, with our current mental health system, nobody was watching him,” McAlister said. “And there was nobody connecting the dots. We see these threats all the time.”
McAlister, who has spent a decade researching threat assessment and management, speculates that Kmetz never got the resources he needed after he was released from the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter.
“You can never say for sure, but our chances to prevent this could have increased,” he said. “But there’s always a path to violence.”
The idea that law enforcement could prevent violence by keeping tabs on individuals known to police isn’t new.
The Cottage Grove police department has one of the only threat management groups in the state, but it resembles a similar effort by the Los Angeles Police Department, McAlister said. The LAPD launched a threat management unit in the early 1990s after an actress was killed by a stalker.
“It is unique,” said Cottage Grove Police Chief Craig Woolery of his department’s new effort. “This program at least keeps [track of] things that probably fall through the cracks.”
After the Lee and Hawkinson murders, local law enforcement also responded by implementing a new tool for domestic assault cases. Washington and Anoka Counties were among the first to use lethality assessments, which ask a series of questions to determine whether a domestic assault victim has a high risk of danger.
Washington County went one step further and teamed up with Hennepin County to create a regional threat advisory group (TAG) facilitated by McAlister and Kris Kienlen, a local forensic psychologist and threat management consultant. Like Cottage Grove, TAG looks at high-risk, targeted violence. The multidisciplinary group includes mental health professionals, victim advocacy groups and law enforcement agencies.
“One group can’t do it alone. It takes a multidisciplinary team effort,” Kienlen said. “Mental health professionals can’t do it alone. Law enforcement can’t do it alone.”
‘Extra set of ears’
Almost every week, Cottage Grove patrol officer Dave Clausen calls a 52-year-old man who has a history of having suicidal thoughts.
Clausen spends anywhere from two to 15 minutes asking about his day while gleaning clues about this behavior. They talk about his grandchildren and weekend plans.
He’s trained to ask general questions that determine risk factors. Is there a motive for violence? Do they possess a stalking or menacing behavior?
“It’s like we are sitting down and having a cup of coffee,” Clausen said. “But I’m trying to look to see if anything has changed. I can tell if he’s changed or his mood has changed.”
On a recent day, Clausen said authorities were called to check on the man because he told social services he “is always thinking about harming himself,” but said he didn’t have a plan, according to Clausen. The man had been frustrated that he didn’t qualify for certain social services. Clausen made some phone calls and connected the man with what he needed. Since May, the two have chatted less frequently — a sign that could mean that the man has a lower risk.
“I’m not a counselor by any means,” Clausen said. “But I can be an extra set of ears.”