Reducing Risk for Elected Officials

By Robert L. Oatman, CPP

Site Management

A security staffer should try to influence the choice and layout of the event site. Ideally, at least some level of control over entry should be arranged.

Hosting an event in an open parking lot is a recipe for disaster, as an attacker can approach from any angle, and there is no choke point that provides the security staffer (or police) a chance to look at each person entering. A better idea is to funnel attendees through a narrow opening, such as a doorway or a break in a rope line at some distance from the protectee.

It is true that an attacker can start shooting right at the checkpoint, as happened in the 1998 U.S. Capitol shooting and the 2009 shooting at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. However, an attack initiated at a checkpoint is at least some distance away from the protectee and allows more time for response. In addition, using a choke point to control visitor flow into the event provides an opportunity to conduct the next step, countersurveillance.

Another option is to have a controlled-invitation event. That adds a layer of deterrence, even though, it should be noted that people who want to disrupt the event may use illegal or legal means to get in anyway. For example, protesters often obtain counterfeit press credentials or other access passes to enter and disrupt a controlled event. It is even common for protesters to buy a token amount of stock in a company to be eligible to attend its annual meeting.

Once the site is deemed safe, the protectee can be brought in through a private or otherwise controlled entrance, make his or her speech, and then leave via a route that bypasses the crowd.


Countersurveillance is the act of watching the watcher, looking for odd or inappropriate behavior or appearance. The practice becomes more valuable the more it is used. Over time, the security staffer may not only develop a sense of clues to look for but may also come to recognize repeat visitors.

In Tucson, if a security staffer had been conducting countersurveillance, he or she might have taken note of a fidgety young man (not the normal attendee at a morning “meet the constituents” event), wearing a baggy coat in mild weather, and with a cap pulled tightly over his head (which may have partly concealed his appearance). A security staffer might also have felt concern when the young man jumped the line of people waiting to speak to Rep. Giffords and had to be told to get in line properly. The staffer might even have recognized the young man, who had attended a similar event in 2007 and asked a strange, nonsensical question.

With a little training, a security staffer may be able to watch for risk signals, such as whether anyone is photographing the security operation, taking notes on protective measures, touching what might be a concealed weapon, or exhibiting signs of stress that could be related to an impending attack.

For example, when someone carries a concealed firearm, the weapon usually leaves an imprint of some sort, an outline of the weapon even under clothing. Another identifier is weight and symmetry. If someone is concealing a gun in a jacket that he or she is wearing, the weight of the gun makes the jacket look off kilter, as one side will be heavier than the other. When the person walks or runs, the side of the jacket that contains the gun will swing differently than the empty side.

Another clothing-based clue is the choice of garments. A person wishing to conceal a weapon may dress more warmly than the weather warrants—for example, wearing a coat, jacket, or heavy shirt on a hot day to hide the weapon.

A different set of clues comes from body language. People who carry a concealed firearm have a tendency to check on it, meaning they periodically place a hand where the gun is to make sure it is still there. When getting up from a table or climbing out of a car, an armed person will generally pat or adjust the place where the gun is held (such as the right hip or the inside breast pocket of a jacket). When the person walks, his or her arm on the side where the gun is stored will have a tendency to stay in place, not swing like the other arm.

An even stronger approach to countersurveillance calls for the use of a second observer standing unobtrusively amid the crowd, where he or she can observe attendees. That person can play a key role in the next step, attack vector awareness.
If an EP specialist does detect someone who may be carrying a concealed firearm, it is time to move the protectee away quickly and signal for help.

Attack Vector Awareness

The attack vector is simply the path that the attacker takes to approach the protectee. If the security staffer or another person providing security at the event understands a few features of the attack vector, he or she may be able to intervene earlier in an imminent attack.

Knowing that in a well-chosen venue, the attacker will have only a few directions from which to approach, one security person (perhaps the security staffer) can remain very close to the protectee while the other security person stands farther away, in or at the edge of the crowd. If someone seems to start moving aggressively toward the protectee from, say, 25 feet away, the second security person can try to intercept the attacker before he or she gets close to the protectee—basically cutting the attack vector short. This approach changes the protection strategy from defensive to offensive and turns the protectee and staff from prey to predator.

Attack-vector positioning also provides another vantage point from which to conduct general countersurveillance, watching the watchers.

No amount of planning and countersurveillance will be guaranteed to prevent all incidents, but by following these six steps, designated personnel can go a long way toward improving the odds in favor of the protectee.

Robert L. Oatman, CPP, is president of R. L. Oatman & Associates, Inc., which provides executive protection training, consulting, and operations. In 2010, he received the ASIS International Presidential Award of Merit. His most recent book is Executive Protection: Rising to the Challenge (ASIS, 2009). He is a member of ASIS International.

© R.L. Oatman & Associates, Inc.

♦ Photo of Giffords' shooting scene by SearchNetMedia/Flickr



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