New Yorkers were shocked and saddened by a recent Active Shooter situation in front of the Empire State Building. The story will continue to unfold as to why Jeffrey Johnson believed he was justified in murdering his former Hazen Imports supervisor, Steven Ercolino.
Media reports indicate that Johnson and Ercolino constantly disagreed. Fellow employees have mentioned that there was open disdain between them. An individual who worked both with Johnson ‘s own company and Hazen Imports indicated that Johnson was fired because he spent too much time on his own sideline business while working at Hazen Imports. If this information is correct, it is understandable why downsizing led to Johnson’s dismissal.
Ercolino was killed approximately one year after Johnson lost his position with the import firm. The scenario suggests that this death is an outgrowth of a negative relationship which developed at Hazen. Distinct differences between the two men were well known. Reportedly, the issue between them was never mediated successfully. In 2011, each filed a criminal complaint against the other, which neither formally pursued in court.
Johnson had a year to address his dismissal on his own terms. Taking the life of another, firing three to five rounds to make sure, is premeditated murder. Although the deed was accomplished on a public street, the circumstances suggest Johnson targeted Steven Ercolino, 41, as he was walking to work after breakfast.
I believe that the investigation will show that Johnson held Ercolino personally responsible for his dismissal without just cause. Whether or not this is true is not important. What is important is understanding that (in Johnson’s mind), he was fired unjustly. He chose to settle it on his own terms. Additional information will be forthcoming which will indicate Jeffrey Johnson perceived himself as the victim within his workplace much like a student perceives himself as a victim and initiates a school setting.
Once Johnson executed Steven Ercolino, he walked away as if nothing had happened. Reportedly, Johnson’s demeanor indicated that he never intended kill anyone other than his intended target. Two brave construction workers unrelated to the incident kept Johnson in sight. As NYPD arrived, these workers identified the killer. Two police officers confronted Jeffrey Johnson from behind. What exactly happened is subject to an open investigation, as is required in all officer involved shootings.
Reportedly, Jeffrey Johnson could have surrendered on Fifth Avenue, between West 33 St. and West 34. Instead in heavy pedestrian traffic, Johnson chose to remove his .45 caliber firearm from his attaché case to draw on NYPD officers. This required the officers to fire on Johnson, terminating the immediate threat. Johnson chose to execute Steven Ercolino. He was still armed, drew his firearm, and was ready to fire again. NYPD officers fired, bringing the madness Johnson created to an end.
A total of 9 individuals experienced non-life-threatening wounds. NYPD spokesman Paul Browne told NBC News that those hit with police bullets likely suffered ricochet and graze wounds, mostly to the lower extremities. All involved innocent bystanders are expected to survive. Six people were treated and released from the hospital, while 3 were admitted.
It is quite possible this incident could have been avoided. There were many signs, noted by a number of people that, there was a potentially violent work place conflict. Co-workers can observe such behavior, but not realize the potentially serious nature of such a situation. Often the perpetrators of such attacks tend to give notice of their violent intentions well in advance. Johnson told Ercolino that he was going to kill him. If notified, police possess operational and investigative tools and approaches available to effectively recognize, evaluate, and manage the risks of targeted violence before crimes occur.
From my perspective, work place violence is an end product developed over a period of time. In the mind of the shooter, violence is the only way to address a perceived wrong. Such an individual develops a sense of victimization based upon their relationship with someone else at work. This does not mean that the action is justified to anyone else, but in the mind of the shooter, it is. The sense of victimization serves as justification of the violence. As we become more aware of Jeffrey Johnson’s role leading up to the death of Steven Ercolino, we will see the Five Phases of the Active Shooter once again.
Often after a workplace violence incident occurs, we were learned that negative behavior from a perpetrator was not recognized as being a serious threat. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) published a study in 1995 identifying the potential for workplace violence. Information is surfacing that on April 27, 2011, Johnson told Ercolino, “I am going to kill you.” Johnson did just as he said he would, a year or so later.
Dr. Lynne McClure is a nationally-recognized expert in managing high-risk employee behaviors before they escalate to workplace violence. Law enforcement must work to educate all employees of the danger signs for work place violence.
Dr. McClure indicates the following eight categories are warning signs that signal the potential for workplace violence to occur:
•Actor behaviors: The employee acts out his or her anger with such actions as yelling, shouting, slamming doors, and so on.
•Fragmentor behaviors: The employee takes no responsibility for his actions and sees no connection between what he does and the consequences or results of his actions. As an example, he blames others for his mistakes.
•Me-First behaviors: The employee does what she wants, regardless of the negative effects on others. As an example, the employee takes a break during a last minute rush to get product to a customer, while all other employees are working hard.
•Mixed-Messenger behaviors: The employee talks positively but behaves negatively. As an example, the employee acts in a passive-aggressive manner saying he is a team player, but refuses to share information.
•Wooden-Stick behaviors: The employee is rigid, inflexible, and controlling. He or she won’t try new technology, wants to be in charge, or purposefully withholds information.
•Escape-Artist behaviors: The employee deals with stress by lying and/or taking part in addictive behaviors such as drugs or gambling.
•Shocker behaviors: The employee suddenly acts in ways that are out of character and/or inherently extreme. For instance, a usually reliable individual fails to show up or call in sick for work. A person exhibits a new attendance pattern.
•Stranger behaviors: The employee is remote, has poor social skills, and becomes fixated on an idea and/or an individual.
Changing times require new approaches. The workplace violence is much like a school shooting. The active shooter must be stopped before he acts. If this is accomplished, the potential shooter never kills or injures another, those within the workplace or school setting are not injured or killed, and the entity which intervened simply adds integrity and professionalism to its name.
Johnson’s dismissal and conduct suggest that in his life, the Five Phases of the Active Shooter had time to develop from a fantasy, to a plan, which was then followed by preparation. Jeffrey Johnson chose use a firearm he legally purchased twenty-one years ago in Florida to assassinate Steven Ercolino in New York City. He approached Ercolino, implemented his plan and walked away in triumph until the arrival of the NYPD.
Jim Gaffney, MPA is LET’s risk management /police administration contributor. He has served with a metro-New York police department for over 25 years in varying capacities, including patrol officer, sergeant, lieutenant, PIO, and executive officer. He is a member of ILEETA, IACP, and the IACSP.
Jim received the Medal of Honor upon graduating from Iona College. He then completed a two year study evaluating the Victim-Offender Overlap. Jim graduated Magna Cum Laude upon receiving his Master of Science in Public Administration.
Jim mentors the next generation of LEOs by teaching university-level criminal justice courses as an adjunct professor in the New York City area.
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