Public Safety & Justice

Technology Threatens Public Officials’ Personal Safety

Several high-profile government officials were killed this year. Standing in the public light has always had its risks, but they’re higher than ever as tracking an official’s whereabouts can be as simple as following their Twitter feed.
by | June 2013
Crime scene tape is seen outside the home of Kaufman County, Texas, District Attorney Mike McLelland, where both him and his wife were murdered in March. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
 

In March, Tom Clements, the chief of the Colorado Department of Corrections, was shot and killed when he answered his front door. Ten days later, the Kaufman County, Texas, district attorney and his wife were shot to death in their home. Two months before that, the Kaufman assistant DA was fatally shot on his way to work. In April, Texas police thwarted what they allege was a prisoner’s plot to kill yet another district attorney.

Is it time to rethink public officials’ personal safety?

At every level of government, policy decisions can make enemies and public officials can become targets. While the White House can assign a phalanx of armed guards to protect the president, such precautions aren’t realistic for every county attorney, mayor and city council member in the country.

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The threat to local leaders isn’t new: More than a century ago, Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison was murdered by a constituent (later deemed insane in court) who was angry the mayor hadn’t given him a job in his administration.

But today, when a public figure’s home address is just a click away, and tracking an official’s whereabouts can be as simple as following his Twitter feed, the threat is more dangerous than ever, says Michael Street, who runs a private security company called Specialized Emergency Response Training in Meridian, Miss. Four years ago, Street started visiting state capitols to train officials about their own safety. (He instructs them, for instance, to be wary of handwritten letters addressed from outside their district.) His team also conducts specific threat assessments for elected leaders. If a lawmaker holds the key vote for, say, an abortion bill, Street’s staff will evaluate which individuals and interest groups would disagree with the vote and how dangerous they might become.

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Earlier this year (before Clements’ murder), the Colorado State Patrol asked the Federal Aviation Administration to stop giving out tail numbers of aircraft carrying public officials. It’s important to limit information about officials’ movements, both in the air and on the road, says Lance Clem of the Colorado Department of Public Safety. Same goes for limiting information shared over the telephone, Clem says. “If someone calls to reach somebody, we try to pass on the message, but we don’t provide a lot of information about where they are.”

“When they’re between places, that’s when vulnerability increases,” says Christopher Falkenberg, president of Insite Security, a company serving private clients in New York, mostly in the banking industry and in law firms. But as the incidents in Colorado and Texas show, it’s equally important to consider personal safety at home. Insite recommends layers of security, which means hardening doors, installing intercom systems, and constructing gates and fences. “The whole approach is to borrow time” for police to arrive, he explains.

Ultimately, much of the responsibility rests with public officials themselves, Street says. “They overlook how dedicated these domestic terrorists are [and] when they do receive a threat, they just play it off.”

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