Civil unrest poses unprecedented threat to federal facilities

May 7, 2021
Federal officials reflect on the violence experienced at government building over the last year during annual SIA GovSummit

Aside from having to deal with a variety of challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic for well over a year, security professionals tasked with protecting our nation’s federal buildings have also dealt with unprecedented civil unrest driven by bad actors on the fringes of each end of the political spectrum. From repeated attacks on facilities in Portland, Ore., last summer to the incursion at the U.S. Capitol in January, riotous behavior by domestic extremists has caused significant property damage and even led to injuries and deaths of law enforcement personnel and civilians.

Looking to address how these incidents have impacted the agencies responsible for providing security at these facilities and the industry’s role in helping practitioners mitigate similar threats moving forward, the Security Industry Association (SIA) held a panel discussion during its annual SIA GovSummit last week, which was held virtually again this year, featuring speakers from across government. Panelists included:

  • Daryle Hernandez, Chief, Interagency Security Committee, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS);
  • Mark Hartz, Chief, Physical Security Branch, Judiciary Security Division, Facilities and Security Office, Administrative Office of U.S. Courts;
  • David Kelly, Deputy Director, Security Management Group, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS);
  • And, Gabriel Russell, Regional Director, Federal Protective Service (FPS).

Violence of ‘Historic’ Proportions

According to Hernandez, while the vast majority of protests in and around federal buildings has been lawful, violence by anti-government and anti-authority demonstrators has ramped up significantly over the past year and their targets and methods have been varied.  

“These events threaten not just our facilities and workforce, but the functions our government performs,” said Hernandez, who moderated the panel discussion. “Unfortunately, this does not show signs of abating with the intel community, DHS and law enforcement noting the persistent threat from violent extremists.”

Russell characterized the violence they have encountered over the past year as “historic” and said that they have experienced over 350 incidents of civil disorder impacting federal facilities since May 2020.   

“That’s an increase of over 230% over prior years,” he said. “ It comes from a variety of different groups – militia extremists, racially-motivated violent extremists, anarchist violent extremists, and anti-government/anti-authority extremists.”

In addition to hundreds of minor injuries (cuts, bruises, contusions, etc.) suffered by law enforcement officers over that time, Russell said there have been dozens of more moderate injuries (broken bones, dislocations, etc.) and over 70 officers have been attacked with industrial-grade lasers, some of which have resulted in permanent sight damage. Also, an FPS officer was killed and another one was wounded in a drive-by shooting, believed to have been carried out by far-right extremists, in front of a federal courthouse in Oakland last May.

Being Better Prepared

Although none of CMS’ facilities have been a direct target of any recent civil unrest incidents, Kelly said any federal facility that thinks they can operate without being prepared for such a threat is sorely mistaken. “You really need to be prepared as a federal agency for events like this just because you are a federal agency,” Kelly explained.

Like many other federal agencies, Kelly said that much of the CMS staff has been working remotely during the pandemic, however; now a number of their employees have expressed concerns about returning to the office as the virus threat starts to wane due to some of these aforementioned events, particularly the January riot at the Capitol building.

“I think it is important that security folks give their folks a sense of security and let them know that their security is priority number one,” he added. “I think a lot of that is done through planning, exercises and training. If employees are aware that you are planning for these events – they are not just plans sitting on a shelf but they are ready to be executed and you have a professional force that is prepared to respond – they might have a greater sense of security and some of that apprehension about returning to the workplace might be mitigated.”

Hartz believes there needs to be a concerted effort to return to the basics of security among the various entities responsible for protecting these federal facilities by better communicating and coordinating.

“The judiciary has a unique role. When you’re arrested or when you have a civil action to bring against someone, there are time limits that have to take place. We’ve noticed that one of the primary targets of the groups that are causing the damage are federal courthouses and those are the same courthouses - when those individuals do have to face justice - that they will be brought into, so we’ll have additional violence,” Hartz said. “It’s all about preparing and ensuring everybody knows their roles, knows their responsibilities, that the decision points have been clearly defined, particularly the decision points for the partner agencies.”

The Industry’s Role

With the outbreak of this violence and civil unrest over the past year, Russell said the FPS has also had an “intense education” on the ability of their physical security systems to handle these incidents.

“They weren’t really designed to deal with this specific threat frankly,” he said. “We’re experiencing things, such as our CCTV cameras coming under constant attack with people spray painting them to obscure them so they can conduct other attacks, striking them with hammers, shooting at them with paintball guns and trying to blind them with lasers. We are constantly having to adapt and evolve to that – you know can we move the cameras up higher or perhaps develop better housings for them?”

Of course, the threats to physical security systems extend beyond video surveillance to other installed technologies as well.

“If you watched the video from the ICE building in Portland, you’ll see that a group there will frequently light a dumpster on fire in the middle of the street, kind of hang around for a little while and eventually they’ll push it up the driveway next to the card reader stanchion, which will destroy it and then we have to replace that,” Russell added. “A group of people will also use a human wave tactic to knock a security gate out of its tracks at that building. We’ve experienced that the crowd barriers that we’ve used across the country have not really performed as well as we might have hoped.” 

According to Kelly, while the industry has done a good job of providing the technologies that security practitioners in the government need to protect their facilities on a day-to-day basis, he encourages manufacturers to begin looking at how they can make some of these solutions more flexible to deal with the ever-evolving threat landscape.

“We need to make them mobile and flexible enough so that as the situation develops, we’re able to move those resources relatively easily to successfully defend where the threat is coming from and that could be mobile barriers, covert cameras, and putting cameras up with relative ease because there is a place that did not previously have cameras and we now need to know what is going on there,” he said. “That mobility can be key to success and failure in operations such as this.”

Joel Griffin is the Editor-in-Chief of and a veteran security journalist. You can reach him at [email protected].