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The recent shootings at the elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, at Centennial Park in Colorado, at Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, and certainly the events in Newtown, Conn., once again drew attention to the difficulty of securing soft targets—and they underlined the challenges faced by security professionals as well as law enforcement.
Often, the first response is to call for stronger gun control measures, followed by an appeal to focus on mental health issues.
Both areas are important. But we must also look inward.
Warning signs of potential danger are often overlooked or under reported for reasons that are unexplainable.
We need to take a closer look at the hurdles to protect both soft and hard targets.
Soft targets by definition are undefended targets with minimal or no level of access control. They include venues such as schools, hotels, shopping malls, movie theaters, and sports arenas.
These targets usually have strong symbolic value. An attack on them would have an economic or political impact and high visibility, and is designed to produce as many fatalities and as much notoriety as possible.
And because these targets are relatively unprotected, they give the advantage to perpetrators who are bent on instilling fear in the general public.
Soft targets are also vulnerable to those who feel they are victims of perceived injustice. Horrific events such as the mass shootings at Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University and the mall shooting at Tinley Park, Chicago are reminders that securing similar settings is almost an impossible task.
It is not the fault of insufficient mall security or unprepared campus police. The implementation of more stringent forms of access control at these locations would have been impossible to sell.
We are a society that values our freedom, with a sense of entitlement to that liberty.
And so, even after a gunman shot nine people, killing five and wounding four, at The Trolley Square mall in Salt Lake City (February 2008), malls across the country still provide easy access.
Any interference arising from heavy-handed security measures would clearly keep them away.
Finding the balance between freedom and protection is the core dilemma facing protection professionals.
To do so without infringing on the public’s use or enjoyment is even more of a challenge.
Security can only be increased if the challenge of offsetting threats against soft targets can be met with reasonable measures.
Attacks on soft targets, like the New York City subway shooting in Brooklyn, have immediate psychological effects. In New York, subway ridership dipped in the aftermath.
The widespread media coverage of school shootings, such as the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., or the Boston Marathon bombings, makes many Americans feel personally threatened no matter where they live.
It has a real-world impact on the decisions we make.
Since we can’t simply shut down our public settings, commercial and educational facilities, how do we best protect environments which lend themselves to a high level of exposure while resisting equal levels of access control?
To reach this point, we must first answer several questions.
“What’s best for this particular environment? What protective measures are available? Who provides them? Who is responsible for planning and executing these procedures? Where do the roles of private security and law enforcement overlap?
And how and by whom will we determine that threats are sufficient to justify the adoption of protective procedures?
The degree of risk that individual people, as well as public agencies and private companies are willing to bear will direct our action.
That risk, defined as the possibility of suffering harm or loss with a known or foreseeable threat to an organization, its people and/or property, can be divided two ways.
- Static Risk, which is constant and unchanging and often found at high profile venues; and
- Inherent Risk, which is unavoidable because of the nature of the business. (Locations such as ballparks, subway systems and critical infrastructure would be considered locations with inherent risk.)
We have almost seamlessly accepted new access controls in some areas. Now, when we go to an arena or airport, we have no hesitation about having our bags checked and our bodies scanned, something almost unthinkable 20 years ago.
Many school districts, which face both inherent and static risks, have re-examined their safety practices to better prepare staff and students against acts of terror by an organized group, a few desperate students, or one seemingly random assailant.
Evacuation plans and campus alert systems are now widely used. Some ban clothing that suggest violence. Others use biometrics as a form of access control.
But there is a fine line between the perception of caution and policies that are deemed fair and practical, and are also cost-effective.
Even with these new policies, the level of risk associated with a particular setting may never change. But, the probability of a tragic event can be mitigated with the help of the general public.
Our society must be charged with the responsibility of diligence and awareness in low security settings. In addition, communicating to security personnel or local law enforcement when something does not seem right is vital to the safety of others.
The days of social apathy are over.
Many law enforcement agencies across the nation have adapted a “see something, say something” program allowing the general public to report anything that seems suspicious or out of place.
Social awareness must become an integral part of any comprehensive public or private safety plan.
This relates directly to “standard of care” in that we must all look out for each other. Neither law enforcement, nor security alone, can solve these problems.
Anthony L. Gentile is a Senior Adjunct Professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Security Advisor to the Newtown Conn., Board of Education.
Protecting Soft Targets: How Much Security Can We Handle? – The Crime Report
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