Giffords shooting raises security questions

Experts discuss the steps public officials and others need to take to protect themselves

The attempted assassination of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and shooting deaths of six other people at a political event in Arizona last week have raised many questions as it pertains to the safety of public officials.

Did the accused shooter, Jared Loughner, exhibit any warning signs that may lead people to think he would lash out violently? What steps will the government take to ensure that lawmakers can be kept safe in their own districts?

In the wake of the attack, SIW spoke with Eugene Rugala, a former behavioral profiler for the Federal Bureau of Investigation who serves as senior advisor for threat assessment and management at the Washington-based Center for Personal Protection and Safety. SIW also spoke to Michael McCann, a retired 26-year veteran of the New York City Police Department and former chief of security at the United Nations. McCann currently serves as president of McCann Protective Services, a security firm that specializes in executive and VIP protection.

Despite the horrific nature of this incident, Rugala said that it's important to remember that they do not occur that frequently.

"These incidents are very infrequent events," he said. "(Mass shootings) generate a lot of media attention, but they don't happen that often.

McCann also advises against having a kneejerk reaction to mass shooting events such as these.

"We should not react based on one incident without doing an analysis of what happened and why," he said.

With that said, the fact remains that members of Congress do receive threats, however, as Rugala points out, "not everyone who makes a threat, poses a threat." Rugala said he advises people in the public eye, including lawmakers, to conduct their own threat assessments to determine what types of security threats they face and what the best course of action is to mitigate them.

"Congress members and their staffs have to be aware and be stakeholders in their own safety and security," he explained. "Law enforcement can't be there all the time. The FBI can't be everywhere."

McCann also encourages politicians to utilize threat assessments and says that they and their staffs should have policies and procedures in place to deal with threats received by their offices.

"Information sharing is important for Congress people and their staffs to make sure they have people in place after they receive a threatening letter or someone visits their office," he explained.

Hiring a private security professionals dressed in plain clothes or employing off-duty police officers are a couple of options that public officials may want to consider, according to Rugala, based on what they perceive their threat level to be.

Rugala admits that it's a challenge to try and secure an event that is open to the public such as the one Rep. Giffords attended on Saturday, but he says they are also part of the nature of the job.

"You are somewhat vulnerable by participating in these types of events and you have to go in knowing there is a risk and staffs have to be on alert for suspicious behavior," he said. "I think people have to realize that these things do happen and have to ask themselves the question, 'what would you do?' Would you try to get out? Would you seek cover or play dead? These are things you have to think of ahead of time"

McCann acknowledged that these events involve a tricky balancing act between keeping politicians safe while still allowing the public access to them.

"The challenge is balancing the openness of the public venue with making sure that the public officials have contact with their constituents," he said.

Rugala also noted the heated town hall meetings during the summer of 2009 when healthcare reform legislation was being debated, as to how contentious some of these political events can get.

"(Politicians) have to get out and meet the public, that's all part of representative government and I would hate to think that an incident like this would end that," he said. "No agency can provide a person with 24/7 protection. It's very labor intensive and that's where threat assessments come into play so individuals who may be at a higher risk, maybe they can be afforded protection."

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