Giffords shooting raises security questions

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."

In the aftermath of the attempted assassination of Giffords, lawmakers are considering a bipartisan proposal that calls for the Capitol Police, which is in charge of protecting members of Congress, to formalize their relationships with local authorities across the country in an effort to better standardize security plans for events like the one held in Arizona last week. Rugala said that while this proposal would likely foster better communication between authorities, it by no means would be full-proof.

"There can always be better coordination," he said. "I think they are already doing a lot of these things and that could certainly be helpful, but local police have to be brought into the loop."

While some have even hinted at around-the-clock protection for federal lawmakers, McCann says that that is just not necessary in most cases, especially considering the time and resources that it would involve.

"It's easy for everyone to shoot from the hip and say now we have to provide 24/7 protection for members of Congress, but money is tight. It's nice to say these things, but it's very costly and it is not always appropriate," McCann added. "We have one terrible incident and it brings (these potential dangers) to everyone's attention, but what is the common sense approach?"

Rugala suggested that local authorities could potentially use the fusion centers setup across the country by the Department of Homeland Security for increased information sharing on terrorism threats as a vehicle to communicate threats against public officials.

"Communication is key in any active shooter scenario," Rugala explained. "We've heard this phrase 'connect the dots' ad nauseum since 9/11, but there is no central repository for this type of information. Hindsight is always 20/20 when you start to look back at these things."

While some in the media have pointed a finger at the tone of political rhetoric as playing a role in the Giffords shooting, Rugala believes from what has been learned about the suspect in the case thus far, that didn't play a big role in his motivation.

"Generally what we see in these offenders is that they are very mission-oriented, they have a target in mind and approach or eliminate that person," he said. "The big issue for me (about the attack) is that we're dealing with a pathology, not an ideology and there seems to be nothing done on either side of the aisle that influenced this man."

Rugala also warned about the potential for copycat incidents to pop up because someone who was already considering committing an act of violence like this may be further motivated by all of the media attention that they see has been placed on it.

"I think after many of these events there is a heightened sense of awareness," Rugala said. "After these events occur we have to be careful not to become complacent."

McCann says that people can't expect just to throw money and people at the problem and hope that it will go away.

"We may not be able to prevent everything and anything from happening at all times. We do our best to prevent (acts of violence), but things do happen," he said. "You have to look at the cause of it and at the bigger picture"
 

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