Reducing Risk for Elected Officials

By Robert L. Oatman, CPP

The terrible Tucson attack on January 8, 2011, in which 19 persons were shot, six fatally, sparked wide-ranging national discussion about possible causes and solutions. Commentators have addressed mental health policy, firearms regulation, characteristics of mass shootings, police action and inaction, the tone of political debate, regulations on speech, military restrictions on prior marijuana use, and even the possibility of a national program to protect politicians.

An attack like the one in Tucson obviously raises many issues, but the one that is most immediate, relevant, and practical for security professionals is this: what can be done right now to minimize the likelihood of similar attacks on elected public officials?

The U.S. Congress consists of 100 senators and 435 representatives. Other branches and levels of government include hundreds more potential targets. Providing all of them with U.S. Secret Service-level protection is impractical and unnecessary. The solution may be to recruit staff members into a protective effort.

Staffers, obviously, cannot play quite the same role as dedicated executive protection professionals. However, they can become familiar with the basics of executive protection, assess risks, plan public events with an eye toward security, and tap other resources (such as local police) to aid in the protective effort.

A Saturday Morning in Tuscon

First, it is instructive to examine what occurred in the Tuscon incident from a security perspective.

According to news reports, on January 8, 2011, around 10 a.m., U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was holding an open meeting with constituents in front of a supermarket in a strip shopping center in Casas Adobes, an unincorporated area north of Tucson, Arizona. Ms. Giffords and staff had set up a table outside the store, and about 25 people were standing in line to speak to her.

Shortly after 10, a clean-shaven but fidgety young man approached the table, wearing a baggy, dark coat and a dark skullcap or beanie pulled tightly over his head. He asked the intern if he could speak to the congresswoman and was asked to get in line and wait his turn. He went to the back of the line, and the intern turned his attention back to the congresswoman and the people she was meeting. Less than 10 minutes later, the same man walked back up to the table, pushed his way past the constituents who had been waiting, raised his arm, and opened fire.

What Can Be Done

Protection specialists cannot necessarily stop an attack like that in Tuscon, but they may be able to frustrate a would-be attacker to the point where that person is effectively deterred. History shows that even some highly fixated assassins turn out to be fickle, shifting to a new target if their first target is repeatedly difficult to access.

For example, in 1972 Arthur Bremer had stalked President Nixon for months, trying to find a suitable opportunity to shoot him. Finally, frustrated over and over by the protection around the President and the speed at which the President’s motorcade always passed by, and concerned that he had been noticed by law enforcement officers, Bremer gave up on attacking the President. Unfortunately, he simply changed targets and successfully attacked presidential candidate George Wallace. (The attack took place in front of a strip shopping center, just like the attack on Rep. Giffords.) But at least from the President’s perspective, the protective effort was a success.

So what are the steps that can be taken to achieve that type of deterrent effect and to be prepared to thwart an active attempt if one occurs? What follows is a practical, six-part approach to protecting a public figure or other person (such as a corporate executive) at public events. The approach is designed to be capable of being carried out by one or two staff members who are not full-time security specialists. It consists of six parts:

• ownership and training
• support from the protectee
• risk assessment and the advance
• site management
• countersurveillance
• attack vector awareness

Ownership and Training

One person should own the security process. For example, a member of Congress could appoint a single staffer to oversee security for public events. That person may have other responsibilities, but he or she can also be assigned to carry out the steps in this proposed process.

To be equipped to handle this additional responsibility, the security staffer needs to understand the basics of personal protection. With that knowledge, the staffer can then intelligently perform some of the necessary protective steps personally and line up assistance in carrying out others.

A version of this approach is already practiced by some corporations, even those with full-time executive protection (EP) staff. When they elect not to send an EP specialist on a trip with the protectee, they may still send the protectee’s assistant or chief of staff, who is trained in security awareness, countersurveillance, and effective interaction with security staff at the site being visited.



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