Mitigating risks posed by the Occupy Wall Street movement: Part 1

Editor's note: This is part 1 of a two-part series examining the security challenges posed by the Occupy Wall Street protests. Part 2, which will look more closely at protecting corporate facilities from threats posed by protestors, will be published later this month.

The Occupy Wall Street Movement, which began as a group of people protesting what they perceived to be the excesses of Wall Street banks and corporate America at Zuccotti Park in New York City in September has now spread across the nation and even into other parts of the world. The protests have remained peaceful for the most part, however, violence erupted this week in Oakland, Calif., as police tried to reign in demonstrators who reportedly vandalized several businesses and municipal buildings in the city. Throngs of protestors also marched on the Port of Oakland forcing officials to close the facility at one point.

As these protests continue to grow, the threats they pose to companies that are the targets of their outrage are numerous and many organizations have already enlisted the help of security consulting firms to help them mitigate the threat. Joseph Sordi, managing director of New York-based Strategic Security Corp., said that his firm's client base has grown by 15 to 20 percent since the movement began.

"This has to be one of the most unique security challenges in history. In my opinion, it's easier to protect a high-level executive or a high-level person traveling over in the sandbox in Iraq or Afghanistan where you know you're looking out for insurgents, you're looking out for IEDs, you have heavy weapons with you, you're allowed to use force, and you have armor-plated vehicles," Sordi said. "In this case, the tables are entirely changed. You would be hard-pressed to say you're going to use force against anyone of these people... because they're passive protestors."

Dr. Paul Viollis, CEO of Risk Control Strategies, which is also based in New York, said it's important for those in the executive protection field to understand the people that are taking part in these protest to be better prepared to mitigate the risks they pose.

"What we're faced with right now is kind of like Hoover-esque days and shades of Kent State. You've got people that are just completely fed up with the country, the government, the establishment or the system, whatever you want to call it," Viollis said. "As with any security or law enforcement professional, you've got to understand your opponent and your opponent right now is intelligent, well-funded and supported by the local governments."

One thing that Sordi said he believes is somewhat alarming about the protestors is that many of them seem to lack a coherent message, which allows multiple people with various agendas to piggyback onto the demonstrations.

"You have all these different groups coming together and formulating. You have the people that support a feminist movement, you have people that are part of the anti-furrier movement, you have the PETA protestors, and these are all the like-minded people that are banding together forming this enormous mass and that has posed the biggest problem," Sordi explained.

While there haven't been any reported attacks against executives or their families stemming from the Occupy Wall Street movement yet, security experts warn that there is a danger of potential "splinter groups" breaking out of them. These are people that identify with the movement, but don't necessarily feel the need to adhere to their motto of non-violence.

"One of the biggest things that you have to be careful of as in any movement you have zealots, you have those that don't want to wait for a peaceful resolve and want to accelerate that," Viollis explained. "Clearly we're seeing that. We're seeing more violence, more aggression as the days go by. Clearly from a security perspective, we're going to have our hands full for a while, there's no question about that."

Former ASIS President Jeff Spivey, who currently serves as president of North Carolina-based Security Risk Management, Inc. says that having an intelligence gathering mechanism to keep up with the protests is paramount in being able to have the situational awareness that is crucial in protecting executives and other employees.

"As these (protests) ramp up, planning becomes more and more important," Spivey said. "Being able to understand, one, what the potential is and then trying to make plans. And that can be done through the monitoring of social media in combination with other law enforcement groups."

Chris Swecker, former assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Investigations Division and the former global security director at Bank of America, agrees that gathering intelligence is a key component to protecting executives and the organizations that they work for.

"I think the most important thing is to understand what they're doing and when they intend to do it and how they intend to do it," he said.

Once that information is known, Swecker said that there are host of things that can be done to mitigate the threats such as briefing security personnel on what to expect and how to react.
Swecker added that another challenge posed by these protests is protecting key executives without over responding or overreacting to what's happening.

"There's two challenges. One, it's all out there and two is crafting a response that is not an over response to what you're presented with and that goes with planning and having a good mitigation strategy. It's all about the advance work," Swecker explained.

Having dealt with a number of different protests in his time at Bank of America, Swecker said that he has even gone as far as personally meeting with demonstrators.

"Most of the time they're very reasonable when you sit down and meet with them ahead of time and establish some ground rules," Swecker said. "They don't always follow the ground rules, but nobody wants an incident where there is a harsh reaction or action on the part of the protestors and I think establishing contact with them is a positive thing. It can help put some order into it. They can get what they need out of it and we can get the protection that we need."

Because many law enforcement agencies have had to walk a thin line between keeping protests under control and allowing demonstrators to exercise their civil rights, Sordi said has been a heavy burden placed upon private executive protection firms to not only ensure that a company's employees are kept safe, but that its brand is also not sullied in any way.

"The challenges in terms of protecting a client of ours, it's a multi-tier process and it begins with knowing that the number one thing is ensuring the brand. Obviously, they need media attention, the Occupy Wall Street protestors, they need attention, they need to be filmed protesting key principal people or key financial people to keep the catalyst effect going," he explained. "From our perspective, how do we minimize that exposure? How do we avoid confrontation? We're looking for conflict resolution, conflict avoidance."

Sordi says that there are three things executive protection firms look at with regards to risk in these situations, which are avoiding the risk, transferring the risk or accepting the risk. In this case, the risk cannot be transferred to law enforcement for the aforementioned reasons, so Sordi said that they've examined how they can help their clients avoid and accept the risk.

In moving an executive into or out of a facility, for example, Sordi said that a company has to accept risk, however, there are some things that can be done to mitigate that risk, such as being on the lookout for key protestors that have been previously identified and using secure parking garages or back entrances to minimize their exposure to demonstrators. He said it's also important to gather intelligence on the company itself by speaking with human resources to see if there have been recently terminated people that could pose a threat or if there is anyone else that is disgruntled in the organization.

Sordi said minimizing an executive's exposure is one his main priorities because while there is a threat for physical confrontation, he said it would be a bigger coup for protestors to provoke them into doing something that potentially embarrasses the company, which is what he believes they are looking for predominantly.

Spivey said that organizations should also be aware of how local authorities are handling the protests, which can add fuel to the fire of the demonstrators.

"Another thing that is a part of that mix is what are the police doing? In some cases the police are making the violence of the protests stronger because of the way they're handling the protest," Spivey explained. "The police may or may not ignite the situation even more than it is. We've seen this across the world that the police may or may not treat these situations the same. The may treat it one way in New York, another way in Charlotte, North Carolina and another way in San Francisco depending on their tolerance level."

Because the identities of many executives are widely known, their public schedules and home addresses are also easily attainable, making protection at the home and other corporate events just as critical as at the office.

"That is definitely the most vulnerable component of this entire scenario and the reason for that is because when we take a look at executives, it's not hard to find out where they live. They really didn't take proper precautions when they bought the house, so you go on the Internet and you know where they live. There are pictures of the house, hell; you can get MapQuest to tell you how to get there. Clearly in a situation where you've got people that are blaming you for their lot in life, then eventually that's going to lead to your family."

Viollis said that executives targeted by the protests should have enhanced security measures at their homes, including up-to-date security systems, as well as guards.

"That's where we really need to be concentrating, making sure that people's homes have a proper level of security," he said. "You can't be a C-level executive on Wall Street or Madison Avenue; you can't have that level of financial exposure and think you're ok with this kind of contractor's special alarm system. Protecting the home should be paramount."

Spivey said that extending protection to an executive's home comes down to how each organization answers the essential risk management question of does the threat justify the countermeasure?

"If the threats are seen as real, then the proper response is going to be increasing the protection of that executive and depending on where that threat is being targeted, that can dictate priorities," he said. "If it looks like someone has been targeted at the office, then maybe that's where the greater protection is needed. If it looks like or there is a hint that that protection is needed in the personal life as well, then maybe you spend more resources making sure that happens."

Spivey added that it's critical for executives and their families to be aware of the dangers of posting certain personal information on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which could make them more vulnerable during these types of scenarios.

"You would want the families to make sure that... if there is information there helping someone else that's involved in targeting the executive, then that information needs to be removed," he said. "You want to make the family anonymous as much as possible, you don't want information from (the executive's) daughter on Facebook telling all her friends she's going to be at this hockey game tonight or basketball game at school. It's better to not have information of your whereabouts and who you are and all of the particulars that not only children give, but also adults may give in that social media environment."

Regarding the physical premises, Swecker said that no trespassing signs should be clearly posted to establish boundaries. He also said that it's important to educate the family to keep them abreast of what is happening and how they can respond appropriately.

"If (protestors) are at the house, you don't want to go out in the front yard and confront them. Let law enforcement do that," he said.

As the other protection experts noted, Sordi said that he would make sure that the executive's home security system is up to date and keep a guard there 24/7 to lookout for things such as "popup protests." However, he believes that the risks faced by executives' families from the movement are relatively low, as he said that would only serve to hurt their cause.

"That's going to be deemed as bullying in the court of media and the court of public opinion. If they start harassing some executive's daughter or son at school, it's going to make them seem like the bully that they're trying to protest against, so they're not going to be doing that," Sordi said. "The family's danger is a low danger. All it is basically is an intrusion of privacy where they get media attention."

Viollis believes that organizations and executive protection professionals need to be prepared to deal with the Occupy Wall Street movement for the long haul.

"This is a very real risk. I don't think we're really taking it seriously yet. I think the protestors are still seen as some people looking to gain attention," he said. "It's a very real risk and it's not going away anytime soon."