The Challenges of Protecting Democracy

According to the United States Secret Service, nothing can stop an assailant from attacking, and even killing someone in the public spotlight, if they are driven by determination and a willingness to succeed. As a trained security professional, one of the first things that I was taught on the job is that there is no typical profile for an assassin or someone who desires to harm an elected official. Sometimes, they tend to be the loner types that are disaffected from society, but more often than not, they are much like your neighbor next door, keeping to themselves until a precipitating event breaks their fragile stability and turns them into a monster. Even scarier, as an open and representative democracy, there is not much we can do to stop these individuals 100 percent of the time. But there are some measures that can be employed to mitigate the disaster.

For nearly a dozen years, I have been tasked with the job of protecting some of America’s most recognizable figures, from well-known members of Congress to international superstars. There is one immutable fact that rings true for all of them—each of these high profile individuals is painfully aware that there are those who, for whatever reason, would love to see them dead. It’s a gnawing fact that keeps many up at night, wondering whether their life in the public eye is worth the cost to their privacy and security. Still, I have also found many of these same individuals have sought to portray personal protection for elected officials as a luxury that is not necessary—until , of course, it is necessary—which leaves security with very little support to do their jobs. Oftentimes, the last line of defense between the target and the attacker is to try to make the public official such a difficult target to attack that most assailants would rather move on to someone else. Not very reassuring for either the principle or the people they are elected to serve. 

Last spring, just as the raucous health care debate was reaching a crescendo, it was widely reported that members of Congress were verbally assaulted, spat upon and physically intimidated by angry opponents. Today, members of Congress will be trained on the basics of protecting themselves while interacting with constituents. That’s a start.

But there’s another threat to security: shrinking budgets. This past October, in Erie County, New York, public service workers and leaders were concerned after county executives announced that 21 security positions were cut at the Rath Building, which houses various government agencies. Erie County Undersheriff Mark Wipperman said, "We probably respond to an average three to four disorderly persons a day,” said Erie County Undersheriff Mark Wipperman. “Not all of them are arrested, but we let them leave with the promise that they won't return until the next day."

And many courthouses in America have had to virtually eliminate the use of metal detectors because they don’t have the resources to hire qualified security personnel to operate them. It’s a veritable free-for-all at the security checkpoint in many courthouses. “People arriving for everything from child custody hearings to murder trials walk through the machines without a beep. The detectors are off because the court can't pay for officers to run them,” the Associated Press reported last year. The story goes on to report that actions like this have forced judges such as Birmingham, Alabama’s Suzanne Childers to bring their own guns to court. Today, Childers carries a silver .38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver underneath her black robe, having recently lost two bailiffs due to a budget axe that has public servants literally running scared.

With Saturday’s murder of US District Judge John Roll of Arizona, who by all accounts was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Tucson, the focus is now on returning civility to our nation. But there’s something missing, as the media rushes to frame this story as one of political discourse run amok. There are gaping lapses in personal protection for elected officials, and it is a true national security threat and a public priority of the highest order if we want to continue to attract talented and caring members of society into public life. While we could always use more bars, more walls and more guards to house and treat the criminally insane, there also has to be a renewed focus on security training for elected officials and their staffs, increased funding for those officials who face imminent or expressed threats, and a quiet acquiescence to the inevitable fact that an open society is a thing of the past, as metal detectors and access-controlled environments replace open forums and community events.

As Americans, the current political climate should sadden us. We have devolved into a nation in which metal detectors at courthouses are necessary and now we don’t have the money to respond.

Elvin Dowling is the former Director of Security and Chief of Staff for the National Urban League, one of the country’s largest civil rights and social advocacy organizations. For nearly fifteen years, he has coordinated and worked on the security details for four US Presidents, Colin Powell, Justin Bieber and more. Currently he is the President of Global Image Consulting, LLC in New York City, which provides executive protection services for clients worldwide.