School Security: A Dangerous Contradiction

September 17, 2013 in Assessing The Environment

As summer approaches its close, schools across the country will again be welcoming students back onto campus.  In some locations, great effort on the part of school administrators, teachers and security professionals has been undertaken to assuage the apprehension and fear of parents and students alike in regard to criminal activity within the confines of a learning environment.  However, one basic error concerning an overarching principle in security will repeatedly be made by administrators, despite their best attempts to secure our schools.  Schools will be thought of, and viewed, as anchor points, but will be treated as habitual areas. This contradiction leads to the establishment of security gaps, which create vulnerabilities that can be exploited by threats.

A habitual area is a location where people come and go with little inhibition or restriction.  It is a location where people are generally welcomed and frequent often and repeatedly.  People generally feel comfortable and move about in an inviting and relaxed environment.  Habitual areas are generally created by a proxemic pull into the area, allowing people to meet a need.  A shopping mall is a good example of a habitual area.  Generally, it is the attitudes and actions of people within the physical space that make a place a habitual area.

Conversely, an anchor point is a location where only a certain group of people are normally allowed to operate in and would feel comfortable doing so.  Individuals who are not a part of the pre-established group would not be welcomed in the anchor point.  Anchor points provide safe haven and a sense of increased comfort and security for those who are part of a specific group or subset, but only to the extent that the anchor point is secured and defended.  Anchor points are a “base of operations” allowing selected individuals or groups to operate in a controlled environment with familiar people with common goals and objectives.  There is also a proxemic pull for anchor points, but only for those who are a part of the group allowed in the location.  Unlike habitual areas, there is also a proxemic push away from the area for the unwelcomed that are not a part of the group. Like the habitual area, it is to a large extent the attitudes and actions of those within the anchor point that defines it as such.

The physical setting does also contribute to the establishment and identification of a habitual area or an anchor point.  Physical security measures such as fences, gates, the layout of walkways, lighting and entry points, help define the area and set the mood, tone, and expectation of those entering and operating within the area.  The addition of iconography (signage, symbols, markings and writings) communicating the belief, association and principles of those operating in the area can paint an accurate picture of who is welcome, what criteria must be met and the operating mores within the area.

Schools, perhaps more than ever, need to be anchor points.  Past acts of horrendous violence make this point undeniable.  However, simply believing or stating that a location is an anchor point doesn’t make it so.  It’s dangerous to declare a place to be an anchor point or have a belief that it is, yet operate it as a habitual area.  This creates false bravado, diminishes our situational awareness and impedes our ability to spot anomalies.

Patrick Van Horne talks about an experience that illustrates this point beautifully.  After the shooting last winter in Newtown, CT, Pat had scheduled a meeting with school officials to discuss training aimed at increasing situational awareness, and thus overall school security.  Pat was to meet with the school officials at the school in question.  The school officials, after meeting with Pat, boasted about the security measures they had already put in place.  They took great pride in explaining to Pat the high degree of safety, security and control they had implemented.  They questioned the need for Pat’s expertise and the training he could provide.

What those school officials did not know was that Pat had arrived early because he wanted to find the exact location of the meeting within the school and didn’t want to be late.  Pat was able to enter the school grounds, wander the halls and corridors in a number of directions, and essentially had full access to the school.  Pat went unchallenged, unencumbered and uninhibited throughout the school until finally finding the specific meeting place.  Whatever measures they may have taken to bolster security did nothing to make the school more secure against a potential intruder.  Their actions only caused them to believe they had created an anchor point, when in reality they had not.  As a result, they were lulled into a false sense of security.

A baseline can be much easier to establish in an anchor point, and thus, anomalies are more easily forced to the surface and recognized than in a habitual area because there are less variables.  Anchor points by their very nature are more controlled and regulated.  There is often a higher level of expectation in regard to appearance, behavior, customs and practices.  It doesn’t take a long period of time, or much observation, to spot the sisters from a local convent who wander into an outlaw biker bar.

The same principle applies to our schools, but only to the extent we are willing to truly establish schools as an anchor point and put the measures and practices in place that establish it as so.  Pat probably wasn’t challenged or even given a second look as he walked unfettered through the school because of the mistaken notion that anyone on the school grounds must belong there and / or someone has already  “cleared” the subject.  If we aren’t willing to defend schools as anchor points, and make clear through deeds, not just words, that only a preselected group of people are welcome, then there is no point in even considering it an anchor point.

Well-intentioned people will most times follow the protocol of school entry.  Those with ill intent certainly will not.  In fact, they will look for the gap in security measures caused by the incongruence between believing the school to be an anchor point, but operating like a habitual area.  Here are some key questions to ask to check for those security gaps.

  • Are check in and checkout procedures well established and followed consistently for every visitor?
  • Do teachers, administrators and other school staff feel empowered to challenge anyone they don’t personally recognize?  Are they required to do so?
  • Of those individuals that are personally recognized, do school staffers still inquire as to the purpose of their presence?
  • Are there requirements in place regarding what can and cannot be carried onto the campus by visitors?  Are there measures in place to check bags, boxes, etc.?
  • as the concept of defense in depth been employed HHasHas the concept of defense in depth been employed?  Has a buffer zone around and leading up to the anchor point been established?
  • Is there a means by which to quickly Is there a means by which to quickly and clearly identify bona fide visitors from strangers from a distance and upon first glance?
  • Is a consistent message being sent about how welcome a stranger may feel simply entering the school grounds by way of iconography, the physical setting and placement of fences, gates, entry ways, walkways, foliage, lighting, and the actions, attitude and demeanor of school personnel?

Perhaps most importantly, school personnel must be trained in how to quickly establish a baseline for their school for any given day, time of day, or special event, and then spot the anomalies that rise above or fall below that baseline.  School personnel must be able to spot those behavioral threat indicators displayed by an individual before a full incursion of the anchor point can unfold and develop.

The defense of an anchor point relies on being proactive, not reactive.  Too many schools rely heavily on reactive measures to preserve life and property after a dynamic event has unfolded.  A true anchor point exists because those that occupy it have made it clear that those not part of the group are unwelcome, creating a proxemic push from the area.

Schools need to be anchor points for our students, teachers and staff, so that teaching and learning flourishes in an environment of safety and security, absent of the threat of violence.  We must establish them as such.  Teachers and staff need to be adept at observing and searching for anomalous behavior. We must train them to do so.  Schools need to be operating left of bang. We must get them there, and keep them there.

This Article Has Become Part Of An E-Book, You Can Download It Here


One For Contact – One For Cover

May 16, 2013 in Applying The Observations

Observing and Orienting In Conversation

The basic principle of “contact and cover” has been a mainstay of law enforcement training for decades.  The idea of one officer initiating the contact with a person and another officer(s) providing the cover for the contact officer has served law enforcement well in regard to force protection.  Savvy officers however, those trained in the art and science of behavior analysis and threat recognition, know that the cover officer’s role goes far beyond a simple show of force.  A properly trained cover officer can be a tremendous asset in observing the cues that are often indicative of a threat.

The purpose of the contact and cover approach is simple in nature.  While one officer (the contact officer) is conducting questioning, a pat-down or search, evidence collection, such as a breathalyzer, or taking a suspect into custody, the cover officer is positioned to view the suspect and take appropriate action as necessary to aid and protect the contact officer.  A suspect is less likely to launch an offensive attack on an officer when outnumbered.  In the event that a suspect does go on the offensive, either in an attempt to escape or do harm to the contact officer, the immediate presence of another officer keeps the odds on the side of law enforcement.  This, however, is only one dimension of the cover officer role and responsibility.

Experienced officers acting in the cover role realize that aiding and protecting the contact officer is more than simply standing by in the event that a physical confrontation develops, then providing the necessary use of force to overcome the resistance.  While that role is certainly important and should not be understated, that is only a part of the cover officer’s duties.  The contact officer, while concerned with a number of tasks such as questioning the subject, recording information, handling radio traffic, and a host of other duties, is not always capable of making the shrewd observations necessary to determine the subject’s true intentions.  The cover officer, while being offset from the contact officer and not bridled with the same responsibilities, can more closely observe the subject for critical cues associated with threat.  The cover officer can observe and assess subtle behaviors of the subject that the contact officer many times simply cannot.  A good cover officer recognizes their role in threat recognition based on the profiling domains of Kinesics, Biometrics, Proxemics and Iconography.

Many law enforcement contacts involve mere questioning of persons with no preconceived intent on the part of officers to take the subject into custody.  During this process, however, a skilled, well-trained cover officer will often times observe those biometric cues triggered by the limbic system associated with “flight or fight.”  With the rush of hormones such as adrenaline (epinephrine) norepinephrine and cortisol, the body displays visible signs of stress and prepares itself for action.  This may include increased heart rate, respiration, sweating, shaking, pupil dilation and blushing or paling.

These Biometric Cues are important observations for the cover officer to make.  Something has triggered a fight or flight response in the subject that calls for further examination.  Perhaps it was a “hot button” question or questions posed to the subject.  A careful review and follow-up of the questions asked (and the subject’s response) would clearly be in order.  The subject may have answered untruthfully, heightening his consciousness of guilt.  It may also mean the subject is preparing to launch a physical attack against the officers, or perhaps the subject is preparing to flee.

By continuing to view the subject through the remaining lenses of Kinesics, Proxemics and Iconography simultaneously, a clearer picture begins to emerge as to the subject’s true intentions.  Is the subject displaying Kinesic cues associated with flight or fight?  Are the feet oriented toward the officer, or facing slightly away, as if prepared to flee?  Is the subject attempting to pacify himself through the rubbing of his hands, running his hands through his hair, rubbing his neck or forehead, or engaged in repetitive movements such as bouncing his leg(s) or tapping his feet?  Is the subject slowly closing the distance with the contact officer, knowing that proximity negates skill?  Or perhaps he is slowing moving beyond the prescribed “arms length plus a foot” distance, hoping to advance his lead should he decide to run.  Has the subject taken on a look of “mission focus,” or is the subject looking past the officer as he scans for a likely escape route?  Finally, are there any signs, symbols, emblems, icons, tattoos or other markings that may give an indication of the subject’s affiliation, social standing, political, or religious views that may be consistent with anti-government, anti-law enforcement and/or general criminal behavior?

An astute cover officer who is properly trained can make these observations and far more, and can make the correct assessment of the subject’s intentions.  This allows for proper action on the officers part before the contact turns physical or the subject flees.   The aforementioned cues sometimes manifest themselves in very overt ways, thus not requiring special training to notice.  However, many more times the cues are far more subtle and varied, and must be viewed in the proper context only after a baseline of behavior has been established.

While it is always reassuring to have a cover officer present who has the physical strength and skill to overcome resistance or give foot chase when necessary, in my own experience, I always wanted more in a cover officer.  I’ll take the street savvy officer, well-trained, with all the accouterments of patrol work, including solid profiling skills.  Give me the cover officer who can keep me left of bang.

This Article Has Become Part Of An E-Book, You Can Download It Here

Learning Your Beat

January 31, 2013 in Applying The Observations

A response to “Defining The Human Terrain – Revealing Core Patterns.”

What the military is only now beginning to utilize in regards to reading human terrain has been a prerequisite for successful urban law enforcers for decades. As Patrick stated in his article, the need for our nation’s military to become more capable of separating the enemy from the crowd he hides amongst becomes an increasingly relevant skill-set.  This skill set is what has defined and set apart the successful, street-smart urban law enforcement professional from all others. Though the collection and subsequent analysis of data concerning political, social and economic factors can and should be used by a higher level in the chain of command for strategic planning and decision-making purposes, such information does little to provide the domestic law enforcer or Marine the ability to spot the criminal element before a criminal act is executed.  Herein lies an important component to understanding the difference between strategic decision-making and tactical decision-making.  Tactical decision-making is necessary to keep the boots on the ground “left of bang” and free from the pitfall of “paralysis by analysis,” when there is little time and/or little information to work with.

Law enforcement agencies have struggled for years to find the right balance in regards to the amount of time an officer remains on a particular beat or district.  Often the concern is allowing enough time for the officer to “know his beat” (establish a baseline for the area and hone his skills at spotting anomalies) versus preventing an officer from becoming too comfortable, which can lead to boredom, complacency, or worse, varying levels of corruption.  In any event, just as current rotation schedules impact military personnel, unlimited time on target, whether for the beat cop or Marine, is nonexistent.  As a result, both need tools that allow for an expedited establishment of the baseline and an expedited recognition of the anomalies.  Urban warriors, whether they be domestically situated or occupying foreign soil, must be able to make quick, tactical decisions.  They need to be able to address the “here and now” that keeps them left of bang.  The ability to do such results from understanding real time group and individual behaviors that are indicative of a threat.  This threat could be anything from the next gas station robbery, home burglary or the IED implanter or suicide bomber.

One of the most common complaints lodged against young, inexperienced police officers are the allegations of improper and unnecessary, stops, searches, and other contacts.  The second most common complaint may well be the internal complaint from superiors and peers for lack of initiative, not being proactive, sub-par numbers, and general incompetence in effectively addressing crime and disorder.  This often results from the inexperienced officer not recognizing benign, normal behavior for the area compared with truly criminal behavior.  When you don’t know what you are looking for, or looking at, everything and everybody will either look completely innocuous or of criminal intent.  Both of these inaccurate assumptions can have dire consequences.  Failing to recognize a threat on the street corner or battlefield can be worse than mistakenly detaining an innocent party.  Such actions, or lack there of, by police officers, do little to build public trust, and can hamper efforts at empowering residents to change an area plagued by crime and violence.  The same can be said for counter-insurgency efforts fostered by military personnel.  Good people want to know that we can discern the good from the bad quickly and deal with the bad efficiently and effectively.  When we can’t do that, public trust erodes and the true criminal element becomes empowered to operate.

For the law enforcer, knowing ones beat means far more than knowing the geopolitical boundaries, major streets and intersections, the quickest ways to traverse an area, where the chronic complainers and crazies live, or which establishments offer the beloved half priced “cop deals” on everything from tires to torpedo sandwiches.  Knowing your beat means first establishing the collective “norm” (the baseline) of the area of responsibility by viewing the surroundings with an understanding of not only the “what” associated with habitual areasanchor points and natural lines of drift, but the “how” as well.  Knowing how to use the personal knowledge of those geographic features to secure an area, identify threats, and collect intelligence for future operations can make the difference between furthering the mission objective or furthering the ability of the criminal element to thrive.

A basic tenant of being street savvy means being able to read and understand Iconography, and knowing how to use it to ones advantage.    Proxemic pushes and pulls in an area can and do, tell a police officer a lot about how the police are perceived and the level of trust, respect, admiration, fear, or reverence a neighborhood may have for a particular officer or the force in general.  Reading body language or Kinesic cues have saved many officers lives during that car stop, pat down, or simply a bar patrol.  Baseline establishment, or “knowing your beat,” as established through these lenses, is as fundamental a tool for the police officer as is a sidearm, radio or field notebook, and so it must be for military personnel charged with a similar mission.

The successful warrior (Marine or cop) does not view each of these domains in a singular or isolated fashion.  Rather each domain must be viewed collectively and/or simultaneously.  There is an interdependent relationship that each domain has upon the dynamics of the other.  Just as looking through a pair of NVG’s, binoculars or an RCO enhances the ability to see geographic terrain, allowing for the safe ingress or egress of an area, or bringing our target into better focus; viewing people and the utilization of their surroundings through the proper lenses allows us to bring the target of criminal and insurgent behavior into better focus.

This article has become part of an e-book that can be downloaded here