The city of Birmingham, Alabama, packs a lot of history into its relatively short 140 years. The Greater Metro Birmingham Area has a population of approximately 1.1 million, which is about one-quarter of Alabama’s total population, and Birmingham is Alabama’s largest city. Yet it’s also home to a replica of the Statue of Liberty on the city’s outskirts; Rickwood Field, the nation’s oldest baseball stadium; the birthplace of a number of other athletes, including Charles Barkley and nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis; the oldest and largest Veterans Day celebration; home to Mary Anderson, who invented and patented the windshield wiper in 1903; and Red Mountain Park, a 1,200-acre public space, which is one of the biggest urban parks in the country and which 40-percent larger than New York City’s Central Park.
It’s also home to some recent political protests, to which no U.S. or global city is immune, including The Water Works Board of the City of Birmingham (Birmingham Water Works), which is the largest water system in Alabama and has been named one of the Top 5 Water Systems for clean water in the U.S. by Forbes magazine.
Prior to January 2017, the Birmingham Water Works was run by an independent Water Board consisting of a five-member Board of Directors. The five-member Board was, at that time, appointed by the Birmingham City Council and was responsible for setting policy for the utility’s operations.
In late 2016, an Alabama House Committee passed legislation that required the Board to expand from five members to nine, with a requirement that at least three members reside outside of Birmingham. The decision was met with fiery protests and press conferences, with opponents calling it a mayoral power grab and supporters calling it a necessary leveling of the political playing field. The controversy ramped up when a draft version of the legislation was leaked to the media before a bill number had been assigned. Overall, the legislation had strong support among some Jefferson County (Birmingham) delegates, but opposition from other lawmakers, members of the Birmingham City Council, and protesters who live in or near the city.
Aside from the Board, some residents were allegedly angered after seeing some discrepancies with their bill due to a change in billing software.
By early 2017, protestors and other activists, including the Outcast Voters League, had formed into a strong team to attend and protest the public Board of Directors’ meetings. Yet, the protestors didn’t stop at the Board meetings. They also threatened to shut down the Water Works Payment Center, where citizens pay their water bills, by physically blocking customers’ entrance to the facility.
A Herculean Task
As Security Manager for Birmingham Water Works, Scott Starkey, EIT, JD, CPP, PSP, was in charge of securing the Board meetings. Starkey has an 11-member security department.
That department includes Terrell Jones, Security Superintendent for the Birmingham Water Works Board, who has first-hand knowledge of securing facilities during protests, having served as Chief of Security for the Birmingham City Hall. He also has more than 20 years of experience in law enforcement.
“Terrell had to devise a plan that included protecting visitors, executive staff and employees from harassment, all while not violating the protestors 1st Amendment rights to free speech and to peacefully assemble,” Starkey explains. “Added to this tightrope he walked, he had to plan to counteract the technological age of smartphones with the capability of streaming live video that the protestors use to document, to the world, security staff’s response to their protest. It was a Herculean task that required much patience and strategy on his part.”
Assets and Disadvantages
As Starkey and Jones planned their security strategy, they noted several assets on their side. First, they personally knew a few of the protestors, as they were “professional” – they were there to prove a point, and not necessarily to become violent.
“The protestors were being strategically and specifically guided to be disruptive, just inside of not violating the law,” says Jones. “They were there to cause just enough of a stir for people to pay attention to them and to distract the real business from getting done.”
Second, the protests were always held at the main office building, where the Board regularly met, which is a facility in which Starkey and Jones have complete familiarity. They know the building’s assets and grounds, including all entrances and exits, and who works there. Starkey and Jones are also very knowledgeable of the physical layout of the Payment Center, where the other set of protests were held.
The disadvantages, according to Jones, were some of the tactics that the protestors used, which included protestors contacting the head of a local agency directly and having him remove off-duty personnel that were contracted to help facilitate keeping order in the boardroom during the meetings.
In addition, some of the protestors used elderly citizens as part of their protests. “The protestors literally placed elderly people at the front line with the thought that security and a police officer would be less likely to stop an elderly person from speaking and to physically remove them from the protest,” says Jones.
Last, technology was not necessarily on Jones’s side. “Everyone has a camera and a smartphone to take videos of anything that security might do wrong to show the world through social media,” Jones says. “I needed to find a way to combat that, or at the minimum, to work alongside that. I had to remind our team that every action would be filmed.”
Peace and Calm
Jones’s plan was to find a balance between allowing the protestors to have their say at the Board meetings: three minutes each, while keeping all Board members, the public and the facility secure.
He hired female law enforcement to address any concerns from female meeting attendees, he had two security supervisors in attendance at all times, his security team accompanied all Board members to and from the meeting and throughout the building, and he met with building employees ahead of time to communicate security concerns and to answer any questions. Last, he set up his own security camera to film every second of each Board meeting, to include all activity before the meetings began and after they ended. “We wanted to ensure that we had the whole story just in case any complaints came in with their version of the ‘whole story,’” Jones says.
“I was impressed with that aspect in particular,” says Starkey. “Social media is powerful, and sometimes, people will place their own spin on a situation. It was an ingenious decision on Terrell’s part to ensure that the actual narrative from each meeting was accurate. Security uses security video to mitigate crime all of the time, but using video in this manner is new for us.”
The local media covered the meetings, which Jones says added to security’s credibility and provided another source of video evidence. “It didn’t bother us that the local media were present,” Jones says. “Their coverage actually made us look good, as it showed how careful we were with planning, how we approached and handled difficult individuals while protecting their freedom of speech.”
“The protests were mostly peaceful,” Jones adds. “While some protestors were very vocal and threatening, none of the Water Works Board members felt physically threatened,” he says. Some protestors were peacefully escorted out of the meetings.
Looking back, Starkey and Jones believe that they are much better equipped to handle future protests. “We now have two security team members who are assigned to all Board meetings, and it’s now standard practice to have contract off-duty police officers at meetings, as well.”
“I would advise anyone in our position to plan ahead with a tabletop exercise and rehearsal,” Starkey adds. “I’ve dealt with many security issues, but political protests are new to me. So having Terrell with his years of experience in law enforcement and protests was key to the situation, with the fact that it was handled as smoothly as possible.”
Starkey also advises to not forget the right to public assembly. “As for the demonstrators, don’t stir the pot – let them make their point as long as they are peaceful; don’t interfere or provoke. Wait to take a tough position until a crime has been committed. If demonstrators have assaulted someone, damaged property or committed another crime, then have them arrested and removed, but be careful in this area.”
Preparing for Protests: What to Do and What Not to Do
Across the country, communities are experiencing an increase of both planned and spontaneous protests and public gatherings. Whether unexpected or anticipated, protesters are a unique security challenge. It’s important to plan for demonstrations before your building is overwhelmed by a crowd.
According to Bill Whitmore, Chairman at Allied Universal, while protestors have a right to demonstrate, business owners also have rights, and a responsibility to their employees and visitors. When large crowds gather outside your work environment, individuals inside may be at risk if the event spirals out of control. A strong leadership culture and an ongoing commitment to safety and security are essential during these events. By preparing ahead of time for rallies, demonstrations or large public gatherings, organizations can better protect their employees and their property.
Expect the Unexpected
Event and demonstration preparedness plans should be developed in concert with emergency and disaster preparedness initiatives. Emergencies happen every day, and no business is immune. What’s the property line? Identify the property line and easements and communicate them to the protestors and the public.
What are the emergency lockdown procedures? Have they been communicated to all employees and to security?
Does your company have a building evacuation plan in the event of a threat to employees or property? Is it practiced? The consequence of a disorganized evacuation can be confusion, injury and property damage. When developing a building evacuation plan, it is important to consider all situations where an evacuation may be necessary and ensure a clear chain of command with team members authorized to order the evacuation and account for all personnel.
Business continuity planning is also critical. If a demonstration or any other event disrupts your normal business operations, do you have contingency plans that include alternative or virtual work sites, off-site storage of critical data and emergency communication channels? These measures cannot be successfully developed when an emergency occurs. Plan now so that you are prepared to best meet your commitments to your employees, clients and other stakeholders.
Keep Aware and Connected
Ensuring situational awareness of ongoing threats and world events is crucial. Implement a system that ensures all employees and contractors are alerted when threats exist and emergency procedures are activated. The responsibility for situational awareness should extend beyond senior leadership and the security team. It is important that all staff is encouraged to immediately report suspicious activity or threats. This is true not just during demonstrations and protests but at all times. Create a culture of accountability and awareness to promote a safe work environment. “If you see something, say something” is a mantra that should be encouraged throughout an organization.
Planning Ahead Pays Off
Establish communications with your local police. By keeping in touch with planned events and collaborating with local law enforcement, your organization will be able to take precautionary steps to increase security when needed. An ongoing commitment to safety and security will help ensure that you can prepare for and respond to threats to your business. Even if your organization is an unlikely target, an event in your general vicinity could impact you.
When you have the luxury of advanced knowledge of a demonstration, protest or other event, all possible measures must be taken to help ensure safety and security. Make sure all closed-circuit televisions and cameras are operational. If possible, instruct employees to telecommute if there is a concern for their safety. Make secure parking or transportation arrangements for employees who need to be on-site. Enforce strict access control policies and communicate procedural changes to employees. Identify circumstances that may prompt facility lock-downs and ensure that emergency kits are on hand with supplies for all employees.
The majority of protests are peaceful with law abiding citizens demonstrating in a public forum. However, a tranquil gathering can morph from calm to chaos in seconds, making the need for preparedness essential. The safety of your employees can be impacted by so much more than what is happening inside your facility. By recognizing all potential threats, including those that can arise from demonstrations and protests, you can create a comprehensive preparedness plan.
Information provided by Bill Whitmore, Chairman at Allied Universal