Interacting with "Cults": A Policing Model
There is a common tendency to view "cults" with a combination of mistrust
and fear. Much of this hostility derives from widespread misconceptions
about the nature of "cults," founded upon popular stereotypes and simple
ignorance. While such misconceptions are unfortunate in the general
populace, they may be dangerous when harbored by law enforcement officers
charged with dealing with these groups and ensuring the safety of both
"cult" members and the general public. The intent of this article is to
shed light on what "cults" are and are not, to give law enforcement
officers some general guidance on how to approach such movements, and to
provide an illustration of how one police department successfully handled
the arrival of a doomsday "cult" in its jurisdiction.1
In sociological terms, a "cult" may be defined as a movement that is
foreign to the culture in which it lives.2 Thus, Americans
would define a "cult" as a group, generally with a religious foundation,
whose beliefs and practices are unfamiliar to the majority of U.S.
citizens. Many groups that Americans once thought of as "cults"�such as
the early Quakers, Seventh�Day Adventists, or Mormons-have received
increased recognition and acceptance and have become accredited churches.3
Other groups, such as Zen Buddhists, which many Americans may view as
"cults," represent mainstream movements in other parts of the world. Thus,
defining a group as a "cult" generally has much more to do with the way
society perceives the group than it does with the characteristics
indigenous to the group itself. Most scholars of religion avoid the word
"cult" altogether because it carries with it a set of negative
connotations: "cult" leaders are con artists; "cult" followers are
brainwashed sheep; "cult" beliefs are bizarre or ludicrous; and "cult"
movements are dangerous, tending toward suicide or violence.4
These scholars instead refer to cults as "new religious movements" or "NRMs"
because the majority of "cults" are young religious movements still in
their first generations. To avoid the negative stereotypes often
associated with the word "cult," the authors will refer to these groups as
new religious movements or NRMs throughout this article. Scholars of
religion have identified various characteristics that are common to NRMs.
In practice, however, it proves difficult to provide a specific
description of NRMs because they vary so widely, from New Age associations
to Buddhist meditation groups to Christian premillennialist movements.
NRMs may range in size from groups with just a handful of followers to
groups with thousands of members, and they embrace radically different
doctrines, ascetic to hedonistic, from apocalyptic to utopian, and from
reactionary to New Age, each with a very different attitude toward society
at large. It is critical to note at the outset that the majority of NRMs
stay within the boundaries of the law. Generally, the public only learns
about the exceptions�NRM members' committing suicide, violently
confronting law enforcement, or engaging in fraudulent financial
transactions. Most NRMs, however, practice their religions peacefully,
never attracting the attention of the public, the media, or law
enforcement. Regardless of this, NRMs still conjure up negative thoughts
in most people's minds primarily because of some long-standing myths, or
misconceptions, about such groups and their activities.
ANALYZING COMMON MYTHS ABOUT NRMS
NRMs engender enormous amounts of fear and mistrust. And, because they
ardently advocate beliefs that are unorthodox or countercultural, NRMs
usually have few defenders.7
Moreover, inaccurate or sensational media reports and misinformation
spread by organizations that may have an anticult bias often provide the
public with its only source of information. Finally, new religious
movements themselves do not have the numbers, influence, or, perhaps,
interest to change society's impressions of them.8
Thus, despite the lack of evidence, inaccurate myths about NRMs persist.
To reach an accurate and effective understanding of NRMs, law enforcement
officers must start from a clean slate without the prejudices that can
hamper effective police work.
Mr. Szubin recently graduated from Harvard Law School. Special Agent
Jensen is an instructor in the Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI
Academy. Lieutenant Gregg serves with the Garland, Texas, Police
Brainwashing stands as the most common allegation leveled against NRMs.
Even the existence of brainwashing, however, is debated fiercely among
behavioral scientists.9 Clearly, in cases where movements
physically coerce inductees (e.g., depriving members of food or preventing
them from freely leaving), definite grounds exist for law enforcement
concern. In the majority of instances, though, NRMs try to attract members
through the same methods used by missionaries in mainstream churches or
secular movements. NRM members may approach strangers or distribute
pamphlets in the hope of enticing the uninitiated to attend a series of
classes or lectures about the group's belief system. At these sessions,
groups commonly hold extended meetings or prayer services during which
they emphasize and repeat certain themes or messages. Absent illegal
activity, this process is entirely legitimate. Critics should not apply
the term "brainwashing" to the NRM missionary and conversion process
simply because they do not approve of or understand the religion in
Misconceptions about brainwashing may persist because it is difficult to
understand the attraction of the intensely demanding NRM lifestyle. Many
people think that sane individuals never would join such a group unless
they were coerced physically or mentally. People overlook, however, the
enormous social and psychological rewards that NRMs can offer. Converts to
NRMs may receive a sense of purpose, a moral compass, a highly structured
guide for their daily behavior, and a strong sense of social identity and
belonging. In this respect, NRMs often seem more attractive to
prospective converts than established churches, which sometimes appear to
have lost their dramatic sense of revelation and urgency. For individuals
who feel unfulfilled by existing outlets in their lives, spiritually
adrift, or merely lonely, joining an NRM may provide a successful
solution, at least temporarily. To put NRMs into context, the same
individuals who join these groups might just as easily find happiness in
such secular, high-intensity movements as the armed forces or the Peace
While it may prove difficult to relate to a member's absolute commitment,
it remains vitally important for law enforcement officers to at least
recognize the depth and sincerity of that commitment. Dismissing NRM
members' beliefs as the products of brainwashing and gullibility can
result in sorely inaccurate assessments of NRM officials and members and
can lead to ineffective and dangerous policing.
NRMs often are stereotyped as con games run by opportunistic leaders.11
Undoubtedly, some founders establish NRMs to intentionally bilk followers
out of money or to unilaterally promote their own interests. More
frequently, though, NRM leaders genuinely believe in their teachings,
however outlandish or fantastic these seem. Such leaders or prophets will
undergo great sacrifices-up to and including death-for the sake of their
message, and it is dangerous for law enforcement officers to approach such
leaders as if they were disingenuous con artists.
Certain practices sometimes are mistaken for indicators that leaders are
insincere. For example, the fact that NRM leaders enjoy benefits or living
comforts that their followers do not simply may reflect the honor that the
groups attach to the leaders' positions. Similarly, groups' requirement
that members turn over their assets to the movements may be prompted by a
genuine attempt to promote an ascetic lifestyle among the members. Law
enforcement officers should be very hesitant to assume that the leaders of
NRMs are not sincere.
If officers suspect that NRM officials have improper motives, they should
examine the leaders' backgrounds. Sociopaths12 or con artists
generally will not invest years trying to spread their messages and form
groups without a guaranteed payoff. Officers also should remember that
NRM leaders and followers may have many complex motivations for their
behavior, not all of which are internally consistent. NRM leaders may
manipulate others and, yet, still hold sincere religious beliefs. Thus,
even if leaders display signs of sociopathic or criminal behavior,
officers should not assume that these individuals are insincere about
their religious beliefs. In the absence of contrary evidence, officers
should assume that NRM leaders are true to their spiritual convictions.
DETERMINING THE RISKS POSED BY AN NRM
Law enforcement officers face the extremely difficult challenge of
determining how dangerous a particular NRM may be. Such groups as Aum
Shinrikyo, which released deadly sarin nerve gas into the Tokyo subway
system, pose a definite threat to their communities. Others, such as
Heaven's Gate in San Diego, where members killed themselves in order to
"beam up" to God's flying saucer, pose a threat to themselves. The
majority, the ones that the public rarely hears about, keeps mostly to
themselves and never bother anyone.
Fortunately, officers can turn to established organizations that provide
threat assessments of NRM groups or individuals. For example, law
enforcement agencies can contact the FBI's National Center for the
Analysis of Violent Crime through their local FBI office and obtain a
threat assessment at no cost. Also, scholars of religion often can provide
valuable information regarding a group's history and belief system.
The authors have developed a risk assessment table that can be of
assistance in evaluating the dangerousness of NRMs. The table divides NRM
characteristics into three categories: risk factors (elements that may
indicate potential danger), neutral factors (traits that may appear
dangerous but in fact shed little light on a group's threat potential),
and protective factors (indicators that suggest that a group is stable and
not dangerous). Although mainly derived from general threat assessment
guidelines, these factors are tailored to the specific attributes that
officers often will encounter in NRMs.11 These factors,
however, will not offer a complete "profile" of a potentially violent
group. Rather, officers should consider the risk, neutral, and protective
factors as a guide to, not a replacement for, their common sense and
firsthand impressions of a specific NRM.
Officers should remember that no single factor, with the possible
exception of a history of violence, will determine a group's threat
potential. Groups that exhibit several risk factors may never commit
violent acts, while groups with few risk factors may become dangerous.
For example, NRMs may obtain and stockpile weapons for different reasons.
Because most NRMs exhibit a certain amount of paranoia, some will arm
themselves to protect against an expected attack by the government,
private groups, or some other perceived "enemy." Groups with this outlook
are quite different from those that arm themselves specifically to embark
on a violent crusade. Groups of the latter type have an "offensive"
orientation, while those in the former category have a "reactive" one.
Offensive groups obviously pose more of a danger to the community and to
themselves than reactive groups.14 Officers, therefore,
should try to determine a particular group's orientation and not assume
that a group has violent intentions merely from the presence of weapons or
another isolated risk factor.
Officers, of course, also must keep in mind the legal protections afforded
to American citizens. Before taking any investigative action, departments
should consult their legal representatives to ensure that officers do not
violate the rights of potential subjects. Finally, and most important,
officers always should exercise caution when dealing with unfamiliar NRMs.
A CASE STUDY OF THE GARLAND, TEXAS, POLICE DEPARTMENT
Little differentiates Garland, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, from other
midsize American cities. The crime rate remains low, thanks in large part
to the progressive, community-oriented policing strategies employed by the
Garland Police Department. Despite its open-minded, modern approach to
law enforcement, however, nothing prepared the department for the
challenge it faced when the Chen Tao religious movement came to town.
Founded in Taiwan in 1993, the Chen Tao movement15, also known
as the "True Way," practices a hybrid version of Buddhism and fundamental
Christianity. As with some NRMs, the 150 members offer total allegiance to
their lone leader.16 They function as a single unit, and at
least some members allegedly have contributed their life's savings to the
When the Chen Tao movement arrived in Garland in August 1997,17
the leader announced that, on March 31, 1998, a flying saucer would land
in Garland with God aboard. Coming on the heels of two highly publicized
suicides involving religious groups (the Solar Temple in Switzerland and
Canada and Heaven's Gate in California), the Garland Police Department
understandably became concerned. What steps could the department take to
ensure that the situation was resolved as peacefully as possible?
First and foremost, the Garland Police Department mobilized its resources,
tasked a group of officers with planning strategy and communicating with
the members, and took the lead role in coordinating the various branches
of local government that the group's presence might impact. These
branches included the city manager's office, the fire department, the
sanitation department, child protective services (the group included about
40 children), the transportation department, and, to prepare for every
contingency, the medical examiner's office. Next, the Garland Police
Department devised a strategy to deal with the situation that included
assessing the group's threat potential, creating a meaningful dialogue
with Chen Tao officials and members, and planning for potential problems.
Assessing the Threat
To determine the true motivations and intentions of the group, the Garland
Police Department contacted several sources, including such U.S.
government entities as the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of
Violent Crime, the U.S. Department of State, and the Immigration and
Naturalization Service, as well as such international organizations as the
Taiwanese Office of Consular Affairs and Office of Economic Affairs. The
department also examined several Web sites relating to NRMs, in general,
and Chen Tao, in particular. Last, the department contacted NRM experts
in the academic community and developed a partnership with a professor
from a local university.18 Prior to working with this expert,
the department set ground rules, including what role the expert would
perform (he would serve as an advisor rather than a negotiator); what
information the expert subsequently could use in research; and what
statements, if any, he could make to the media.
Creating a Meaningful Dialogue
Law enforcement behavioral consultants and hostage negotiators have
preached the doctrine of dialogue building for some time.19
However, law enforcement agencies should consider two caveats to dialogue
building.20 First, authorities should approach NRMs only if it
appears safe to do so. The second caveat concerns trust�rapport can be
established only if the group feels that the department is as good as its
word. Broken promises and lies will lead to a complete breakdown in
communication. In that event, it would have been better not to have tried
to establish a dialogue at all.
For the Garland Police Department, creating an ongoing dialogue with Chen
Tao officials and members soon after their arrival stands as perhaps its
most effective strategy in peacefully resolving a potentially dangerous
situation. When the group first arrived, the department assigned a
lieutenant to initiate and maintain contact with members during their
stay. This officer used an open, friendly approach. He assured members
that the department recognized their rights under the U.S. Constitution
and stated that, in fact, it was the department's responsibility to
protect these rights. The lieutenant and others met often with Chen Tao
of facials to discuss various newspaper articles or interviews that
appeared in the media. In addition, the lieutenant provided a contact
number for them to reach him on a 24-hour basis. Relations became so
cordial that soon members of the department and Chen Tao were meeting
every 2 weeks for dinner at a local restaurant.
The rapport between the group and the department provided many benefits.
First, it established a level of trust and made Chen Tao officials and
members recognize that the police were, indeed, there to help them.
Garland authorities underscored this fact at every meeting or public event
by reminding Chen Tao members that the department was there to protect
them from individuals who might resent the group or wish to do it harm.
Second, the rapport allowed authorities to become so well acquainted with
group activities that they probably would have noticed any changes that
might have signaled planned violence or suicide. Finally, the rapport
between the group and authorities eventually grew to the extent that
officers felt comfortable asking more probing questions, such as whether
the group had violent or suicidal intentions, and had confidence in their
evaluations of the responses they received.
The department also established communication with two other groups in
addition to the Chen Tao movement. The first was the community, which did
not know quite what to make of the group. Its presence unsettled many
Garland residents. They did not understand the group's different style of
dress and behavior, and many feared violence. Throughout the group's
stay, the department maintained contact with community members and
informed them of investigation developments and contingency plans for the
community's well being. The department also established an ongoing
dialogue with the media. Beginning with the Chen Tao movement's arrival
in Garland, media scrutiny proved intense. Reporters and camera crews
came from as far away as England, France, Germany, and China to cover the
story. As with any major news-breaking event, the Garland Police
Department used public information officers to deal with the media. They
issued media passes, created press kits, provided interviews, and arranged
such logistical considerations as parking and sanitation facilities.
Planning for Potential Problems
As the date approached for God's alleged arrival on earth, the Garland
Police Department felt relatively certain that, even if God did not show
up as planned, Chen Tao members would not resort to violence or suicide.
However, the department decided not to take any chances. It set up an
on-site command post and had a special weapons and tactics team available
to respond if it appeared that the group would harm itself or others. The
department had area child protective services on hand to care for children
as necessary. In case the group released poisonous gas, the department
had fire department units and paramedics on the scene and had established
evacuation routes. The department also had a judge available to issue
search warrants if necessary. Finally, because it feared that helicopter
traffic over the area where Chen Tao members lived could pose a safety
hazard, the department had requested that the Federal Aviation
Administration restrict air traffic if necessary.
All of these plans culminated on the morning of March 31, 1998. Law
enforcement officers and the citizens of Garland held their collective
breaths. Time passed, and God did not arrive. The situation, however,
did not end in tragedy. The Chen Tao leader announced that he obviously
had misunderstood God's plans, and members quietly returned to their
homes. Eventually, those members who did not return to Taiwan relocated
to upstate New York to continue their vigil.
The Garland Police Department put a great deal of time and effort into
peacefully resolving the Chen Tao situation. At the end of day on March
31, 1998, the department could take pride in its achievement.
Dealing with new religious movement leaders and their followers stands as
one of the most sensitive and difficult tasks that face modern law
enforcement agencies. The Garland, Texas, Police Department faced the
possibility of such a threat when the Chen Tao religious movement arrived
in its community. To safeguard Garland residents, as well as group
members themselves, the department gathered accurate information about the
religious movement, established a meaningful dialogue with the group's
members, mobilized community resources, and planned for the worst. By
employing this kind of informed, deliberate decision making and avoiding
popular misconceptions about "cults," law enforcement officers may achieve
similar success with NRMs that they encounter.
Certain characteristics provide indications of a new religious movement's
instability and potential for violence. While some of these factors may
prove more significant than others, many may signal a marked shift in a
group's attitude, orientation, or behavior toward violent activity.
History of violent episodes or clashes with law enforcement
Leader's past or current condition (e.g., history of
violence, drug or alcohol abuse, or mental illness; increasing amounts of
paranoia;21 onset of real or perceived serious illness; or
Any abrupt reversal of direction, whether the change appears
positive or negative (e.g., stops recruiting new members or suddenly
changes its message from doom to optimism)
Recent attempts to obtain the knowledge to carry out a
violent act (e.g., recruitment of military or ex-military personnel or
those with knowledge of chemical/biological weapons) and intelligence
gathering against specific persons, organizations, or locations
Recent purchases of weapons, poison, or unusual amounts of
drugs or drug accessories
Training in the use of weapons and rehearsals of suicide
(e.g., performing ritualistic ceremonies where members jointly consume a
single food or drink) 22
Instances of violence within the group (e.g., child abuse,
sexual abuse, ritualistic violence, violence as a form of social/
religious punishment, or violence as a rite of passage)
Setting an exact date for the imminent transformation of
life on earth
Moving the date for transformation forward, or closer to the
Conversely, officers can view a group that pushes this date back as less
of a threat.23
Phrasing its prophecies or predictions in a detailed manner
(e.g., the general claim that "a day will come when evil will be punished"
represents less of a risk factor than the more specific claim that "a day
will come when America's institutions will bum and its officials will be
Envisioning an active role for the NRM in the coming
transformation (e.g., predictions that "God's chosen people will be taken
up," which is phrased passively, versus a prediction that "God's chosen
people will shed their mortal bodies and transport themselves to heaven")
Having the knowledge, means, and ability to carry out a plan
that makes sense operationally
Because new religious movements exhibit many unfamiliar traits, it becomes
difficult to distinguish between risk indicators and characteristics that
appear strange but are not necessarily dangerous. Several traits common
to these groups exist but are not, in and of themselves, danger signals.
Members offer absolute and unquestioning adherence to their leader and the
belief system. In the absence of other risk indicators, this does not
indicate a propensity toward violence or other criminal activity. Indeed,
total devotion is the hallmark of new religious movements. The group
physically segregates itself from others. This also is a common
characteristic of many new religious movements and says little about a
group's attitude toward violence or suicide.25
Members adopt unfamiliar customs or rituals, which may involve diet,
dress, language, or family and social organization.
The presence of some characteristics may indicate that a new religious
movement is comparatively stable or is becoming more stable and, hence,
less of a danger. Members take practical steps to plan for the future
(e.g., send their children to school, work at permanent jobs, or make
medium to long-term investments in commodities or real estate).
The group adopts bureaucratic processes that routinize its affairs (e.g.,
transcribes its leader's teachings to writing for dissemination or
appoints a committee to handle such aspects as outreach, finances, or
general management). When the leader dies, a more conventional style of
governance, involving voting or a committee structure, replaces autocratic
decision making. Often, this causes outsiders to change their opinion of
the group and view it as a religious denomination or mainstream religious
organization rather than a new religious movement.
1 The authors gratefully acknowledge Special Agents Alan
Brantley and Kenneth Lanning of the FBI's National Center for the Analysis
of Violent Crime, Special Agent James Duffy, formerly of the FBI's Crisis
Negotiation Unit, Drs. Anthony Pinizzotto and John Jarvis of the FBI's
Behavioral Science Unit, Dr. Catherine Wessinger of Loyola University at
New Orleans, Louisiana, and Dr. James T. Richardson of the University of
Nevada at Reno, Nevada, for sharing their invaluable experience and
2 For a general discussion of cults and cult movements, see J.
Gordon Melton, Encyclopedia of American Religions, 5'" ed. (Detroit: Gale
3 See James R.P. Ogloff and Jeffrey E. Pfeifer, "Cults and the
Law: A Discussion of the Legality of Alleged Cult Activities," Behavioral
Sciences and the Law, 10, n. 9 (1992): 117, 119; and Jeffrey E. Pfeifer,
"Equal Protection for Unpopular Sects," New York University Review of Law
and Society Change 7, n. 9 (1979): 9-10.
4 J. Dillon and J. Richardson, "The Cult Concept: The Politics
of Representation Analysis," Syzygy: Journal of Alternative Religion and
Culture 3 (Fall/Winter 1994): 185-196.
5 For a description of structural/demographic features common
to cults, see J. Gordon Melton, Encyclopedia of American Religions, 5th
ed. (Detroit: Gale Research, 1996); and Philip Lamy, Millennium Rage (New
York: Plenum Publishing, 1996).
6 Supra note 2.
7 For an analysis of negative public reactions to NRMs, see
David Bromley and Anson Shupe, "Public Reaction Against New Religious
Movements" in Cults and New Religious Movements, ed. Marc Galanter
(Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1989), 305-330.
8 However, a few groups have employed public relations workers
for this purpose (Dr. Catherine Wessinger, interview by authors, December
9 Many scholars contend that individuals cannot be
"brainwashed" to act against their wills. See Miriam Karmel Feldman, "The
Mind Control Myth: Is Brainwashing All Wet?" Utne Reader 92 (March/April
1999): 14-15; and James T. Richardson and Brock Kilbourne, "Classical and
Contemporary Applications of Brainwashing Models: A Comparison and
Critique," in The Brainwashing/ Deprogramming Controversy: Sociological,
Psychological, Legal and Historical Perspectives, ed. David G. Bromley and
James T. Richardson (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1983), 29-45. Other
researchers claim that NRMs effectively employ coercive mind control
techniques. See Margaret Thaler Singer and Janja Lalich, Cults in Our
Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
10 For a discussion detailing why individuals join NRM groups,
see Philip Zimbardo, "What Messages Are Behind Today's Cults?" available
cult.html; accessed July 13, 2000.
11 See Saul V. Levine, "Life in the Cults" in Cults and New
Religious Movements: A Report of the American Psychiatric Association, ed.
Marc Galanter (Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1989),
12 The term sociopath or antisocial personality disorder is a
clinical diagnosis used by mental health professionals. For law
enforcement purposes, sociopaths generally are totally self centered
individuals who lack a conscience, do not display remorse for their
actions, and do not learn from their mistakes. Law enforcement
professionals spend a great amount of time dealing with these individuals,
who some believe are responsible for most of the criminal acts committed
in society. For further information, see The Sociopath A Criminal Enigma
(undated) produced by the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit.
13 For dangerousness typologies relating to militia and
extremist groups, see James E. Duffy and Alan C. Brantley, "Militias:
Initiating Contact," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, July 1997, 22-26;
Anthony J. Pinizzotto, "Deviant Social Groups," Law and Order, October
1\996, 75-80; and Catherine Wessinger, "Presentation to the FBI, June 7,
1999"; available from http:lwww.loyno.edu/ -wessing; accessed July 13,
2000. Also, the authors gained valuable information from numerous
personal dialogues with Special Agent Alan Brantley.
14 However, if an armed group perceives law enforcement
behavior as threatening, even a reactive group could respond with violence
15 This movement originated nearly 40 years ago and grew out of
a quasi-academic group known as the Research Group of Soul-Light, which
had as many as 3,000 members. The present leader, formerly a sociology
professor at Chianan College of Pharmacology and Science in Taiwan,
reorganized the group around the revelation concerning God's appearance on
earth that he received in 1993. See Matthew Goff; "An Historical Overview
of the Chen Tao"; available from http://www.channell.coml
users/tdaniels/Articles/72-history.html; accessed July 13, 2000.
16 While loyalty to leaders represents an enduring stereotype
associated with NRMs, it may vary from group to group. (Dr. James T.
Richardson, interview with authors, December 29, 1999).
17 The group first arrived in the United States in 1996 in San
Dimas, California. The leader moved the group to Texas upon alleged
instructions from God. The members chose Garland because it sounded to
them like "Godland." See Ted Daniels, "Chen Tao and Rationalization of
Failure"; available from
http://www. channell. com/users/tdaniels/ Articles/71-chentao.htm
18 Dr. Lonnie Kliever supplied a great deal of beneficial
information to the Garland Police Department. For his perspective, see
Lonnie Kliever, "Meeting God in Garland: A Model of Religious Tolerance,"
Nova Religion: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 3, n. 1
(October 1999): 45-53.
19 For the benefits and strategies of communicating with
militia groups, see James E. Duffy and Alan C. Brantley, "Militias:
Initiating Contact," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, July 1997, 22-26; and
Anthony J. Pinizzotto, "Deviant Social Groups," Law and Order, October
20 See the previous section on determining risks of NRMs.
21 A certain amount of paranoia is normal among NRM leaders.
However, high degrees of paranoia or an increasingly paranoid outlook
should raise a red flag. For an in-depth analysis of paranoia in groups,
see Robert Robins and Jerrold M. Post, Political Paranoia: The
Psychopolitics of Hatred (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997).
22 This illustrates why officers must use their common sense
and establish a dialog in interacting with NRM members. While eating and
drinking common food and beverages may serve as a rehearsal for suicide,
it may act instead as an integral part of a group's religious practices.
In Christianity, for instance, parishioners consume wine and bread
routinely as part of Communion ceremonies. Law enforcement personnel may,
at some point, have to evaluate the purposes of such acts; the best way to
do this may be merely to ask group members about it.
23 A good investigative strategy would include determining
whether the group in question has fixed upon other dates in the past. If
so, how did it respond when those dates passed? A group that has bounced
back from past disappointments is less likely to self destruct upon
arriving at its next unfulfilled prophecy. Precedents exist for dates
marking God's return to pass without incident. Groups can easily explain
God's failure to return by claiming that he changed his mind or did return
but only "believers" could see him.
24 To protect freedoms of speech and religion, law enforcement
agencies should consult their legal advisors before collecting and
scrutinizing groups' publications, pronouncements, Web sites, or other
25 For a discussion of the circumstances under which physical
isolation may assist in propelling a group toward violence, see Kevin M.
Gilmartin, "The Lethal Triad: Understanding the Nature of Isolated
Extremist Groups," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, September 1996, 1- 5.
Copyright United States. Federal Bureau of Investigation Sep 2000