Safety & Security (Protecting Campus Resources)

Illusions of Security

Security access points

PHOTO COURTESY OF MICHAEL DORN

WHO IS PAYING ATTENTION? The author waited in the rain for more than 40 minutes to pass through a metal detection checkpoint at this tourist venue in Washington, DC. His observation was that a reasonably intelligent 12-year-old could get a gun through the poorly run checkpoint at the end of this line. The potential for a seriously bad outcome was sobering.

I do not mind waiting in the rain for 45 minutes to pass through a walk-through metal detection checkpoint at a tourist attraction. What I do mind is waiting to pass through a checkpoint so poorly run that a child could figure out that he could easily pass through the checkpoint with several firearms concealed on his person. This was my experience the day after I keynoted the National Campus Safety Forum in our nation’s capitol this spring.

Each checkpoint involved one security officer standing by a walkthrough metal detector while dozens of patrons per minute passed through the unit. Each person set off the detector in turn, but not one patron out of the hundreds I observed was checked with a hand-held metal detector. This means the operator could not tell whether a portable phone or a high-capacity 9mm handgun was setting off the detector.

Parents were pushing metal baby strollers through the checkpoint and most patrons were carrying umbrellas through the units. These are all signs of an unreliable and easily defeated checkpoint.

Knowingly presenting a façade of security can be not only unethical, but can result in significant exposure to civil liability and a tremendous loss of public confidence.

Take Notice, Because Others Do

I am not the only person who noticed these significant gaps in security that day. I overheard numerous patrons complaining about standing in the rain to go through a checkpoint that they also knew could be easily breached. Certainly a well-studied aggressor could figure out how easy it would be to beat this type of security scan. A terrorist could also readily surmise that doing so in order to carry out an attack would result in intensive criticism of the organization operating the venue.

While properly operated and supported, entry-point metal detection can be extremely effective; knowingly operating an easily defeated checkpoint is simply unacceptable. As my visit was in the Fourth of July timeframe, with an elevated threat level announced by the federal government, this is even more troubling.

Securing the Campus

Similar instances where a false promise of security is provided occur at colleges and universities. While security measures do not need to be foolproof, they should be implemented in a manner that makes them reasonably effective.

I once attended a graduation ceremony at a state university to see one of my officers receive her graduate degree. As I passed through a walk-through metal detector, I reached for my credentials to show the police officer staffing the checkpoint that I was authorized to carry my concealed service pistol. Before I could show my badge, the officer waved me through the checkpoint even though the unit alarmed as it should have. As I was carrying a service pistol loaded with 20 rounds along with two spare magazines and handcuffs, it was evident that the checkpoint was a feel-good measure rather than a real barrier to an attacker.

With a single officer attempting to staff two different walkthrough detectors, responsibility lies with his police chief and institution. This type of approach to campus security can quickly become “exhibit A” should litigation occur because an aggressor passed through a checkpoint while carrying one or more weapons. Whether the façade of security involves “dummy” security cameras or security equipment that has been broken for long periods of time it can be difficult to defend in a court of law or in the court of public opinion.

Campus leaders should deliver the level of security they imply or be prepared to accept full responsibility for the resultant tragedy when an aggressor defeats feel-good security measures.

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at www.safehavensinternational.org.

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