Recently, at a speech and follow-up discussion with the global security department of a major multinational company, an interesting and lively discussion ensued over the topic of whether the presence of uniformed police officers increases the risk to a venue or location.
The topic was raised in light of the police killings in Dallas and Baton Rouge coupled with the recent targeting of police vehicles and officers during violent demonstrations in St. Louis and Atlanta.
While targeting police officers is nothing new, these incidents seem to be occurring with disturbing frequency, both inside the United States and abroad. In Austin, Texas, in November, 2014, a gunman opened fire on the police headquarters building after also firing shots at the Mexican Consulate and the U.S. Courthouse. In July 2017, an NYPD officer was ambushed and murdered in the Bronx in an incident reminiscent of similar officer murders in 2014 and other ambushes of police officers in Iowa and Pennsylvania in November, 2016.
Although I don’t think there is an easy answer, and most police departments have not directly confronted the issue, the fact that companies are raising the issue means that police departments should be as well.
Conventional wisdom centers on the logic that uniformed cops at corporate venues or special events act as a deterrent to violence, crime and even terror. In light of the latest attacks on police officers, a new question has been raised — is the threat of dragging “cop haters” to your location or special event greater than the benefit of deterrence that comes with having a uniformed officer present?
As a former police officer and special agent, I think it depends on a range of variables; the question shouldn’t be answered in a vacuum.
- Is tactical intelligence available that indicates a heightened threat against police in the area?
- Has there been recent violence targeting law enforcement personnel or assets?
- What about protests against cops?
- Has a baseline threat assessment been done to address these issues?
- Are other options available, such as off-duty cops in plainclothes or counter-surveillance assets?
- Can surveillance technology like drones or cameras assist in identifying potential problems?
Conducting a sober assessment of the threat, as much as that is possible in the situation, is critical, even if there are intelligence gaps.
A fascinating recent study by the FBI, “The Assailant Study – Mindsets and Behaviors,” indicated that police killers discussed “the expressed desire to kill law enforcement” prior to carrying out their attack, in 28 percent of police killings, but it’s not always possible to predict their movements.
Social media has also made the threat more nebulous, while transmitting potential triggers much more quickly. Inflammatory videos and images spread in social media obviously don’t tell the whole story of any situation, but they can instigate bigger problems, especially in individuals who are already leaning toward violence. Additionally, emotionally disturbed individuals often direct threats against law enforcement officials; these situations can be exacerbated by social media.
I have always believed that having a uniformed presence, augmented with low-profile plainclothes surveillance assets, is the best model. The plainclothes assets can be used to keep an eye on the uniformed officers’ backs to help reduce the threat of an ambush-style attack. This combination model also served us very well in protecting VIPs and senior government officials, as I discussed in detail in my book Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent (Random House, 2008). The plainclothes officers can identify the threat in the outer ring of security before they approach or get to the marked units to cause harm.
In a perfect world, you could fill all intelligence gaps about likely threats. But in the real world, being aware that uniformed officers may draw more attention to some events and incorporating that possibility and alternative options into your planning may be the best solution.
Fred Burton is the chief security officer at Stratfor.com, the world’s leading geopolitical intelligence platform. He is a former police officer, special agent with the U.S. State Department and New York Times best-selling author. You can follow him on Twitter @fred_burton.