On May 1, 2010, an attempt was made to detonate a car bomb in New York’s Times Square during early evening hours when thousands of theatergoers and tourists were visiting. While this involved an extremist with a political agenda, tourists and landmarks are indeed targets of such activities, as well as crimes ranging from theft to assault and worse. For those often tasked with ensuring safety at popular destinations – private security firms – an industry evolution has resulted in practices to deal with this new age of threats in a way that is effective and discreet for varied reasons.
On the front-line of this approach is the private safety officer. In the past, their physical presence alone was often considered a significant deterrent and much of their time was spent simply conducting surveillance over crowds. However, today’s private safety officers are trained to purposely interact with crowds seemingly as “ambassadors.” While some might consider their friendly actions more in the realm of public relations, the purpose of this approach is actually a serious one. It is meant to draw-out often poorly trained terrorists and criminals who become uncomfortable with such attention. These skilled private safety officers are trained to pick up on specific indicators of their unease.
Private safety officers follow the actions of guests at a much deeper level than in the past. For instance, they scrutinize such simple practices as someone taking a photo, specifically, what is the goal of the photographer? Are they actually taking a photo of a person posing in front of a landmark or is the angle such that they could be trying to capture an image of the site in order to plan future criminal activities? Furthermore, private safety officers keep careful watch over the physical environment of a tourist site itself. Packages or bags left behind – which in the past would have simply required a trip to the “lost and found” – must now be dealt with cautiously whereas they could potentially hold such things as explosives or toxins.
This brings up the subject of crowd control in the event a potential threat is discovered. Panic in a crowd can not only result in injury or death, it can impede emergency services, the pursuit of suspects, contaminate a crime scene and more. As such, private safety officers are trained to follow specific protocols to escort tourists to safe areas quickly, without causing alarm that could make an emergency situation worse.
Naturally in these instances, protocols and communications channels are in place that will facilitate immediate involvement and cooperation with the highest levels of law enforcement, including organizations such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation. However, it should be noted that perhaps the private safety officer’s greatest ally in preventing and resolving threats and crime are strong relationships with local and state police. The reason for this is simple; like the private safety officers, area law enforcement is most familiar with a local environment and is more likely to recognize the unusual and deter someone with malicious intent.
In the case of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building - an act of domestic terrorism that claimed 168 lives - Timothy McVeigh was stopped by an alert and suspicious Oklahoma State Trooper within 90 minutes of the explosion for driving without a license plate. He was then arrested for unlawfully carrying a weapon. This opened the floodgates to an investigation that quickly linked McVeigh to co-conspirator Terry Nichols, and eventually other accomplices.
Yet, it’s what sightseers don’t see that is the hallmark of a well-protected tourist destination. Private safety officers initiating friendly discussions, asking about the bag left at a visitor’s feet, commenting on a nicely framed photo - these seemingly innocent interactions are very serious business. And at this very moment - as millions of summer tourists relax and enjoy sites from NY’s Empire State Building to Caesars Palace in Las Vegas to the Hollywood & Highland Center in California - it’s clear that this new breed of private safety officer is having a very visible impact.