The changing face of security is one you no longer see

The changing face of security is one you no longer see
© Getty Images

As religious and business leaders review security plans in the wake of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, pipe bombs mailed to political leaders and the shooting at a restaurant in Thousand Oaks, Calif., one question comes up over and over again: How do we keep ourselves safe without feeling like we live, work and pray inside a fortress?

The bad news is that after these and other recent high-profile acts of violence, we need to accept that security is one of the hard costs associated with any significant public person or public gathering, in the same way that we might account for something mundane, like parking.


The good news is that there are ways to provide security without projecting an image that makes Americans feel as if they’re living in a state of constant surveillance and armed vigilance. And the proof lies in the fact that many people already live and work in this new reality, sometimes without knowing it.

The shooting in Pittsburgh has prompted other religious leaders to talk openly, some for the first time, about their own efforts to ramp up security in and around their houses of worship. Some of these leaders employ armed guards, what we would refer to as overt security. But many others make an effort to be more covert, like the temple in Kansas City that recently admitted that it now has an armed, off-duty plainclothes police officer present at every event.


There was a time when the only people or places that had protection were those who seemed to need it the most — the president, vice president and other important elected officials; the White House, Congress and any other place where those people gathered. For them, it was understood that the job came with a protective bubble.

While certain covert protections were utilized, security was largely overt. You could see it in the motorcades that followed wherever they were driven. You could see it in the agents wearing sunglasses and earpieces that followed them wherever they walked.

As threats to public officials evolved, however, so, too, did the security around them. Along with overt protection came the increased use of covert protection techniques. Eventually, those same techniques started to trickle down to people who previously didn’t feel the need for protection. And within that principal lies the potential to keep more and more Americans safe without them feeling as if they're under a microscope. 

Today, the range between overt and covert exists on a sliding scale of options available to everyone from company executives to church leaders. The execs don’t want to feel like they’re in a perp walk every time they move from their car to a building entrance. The worshippers don’t want to feel like they’re walking through a TSA security line every time they join together with fellow observers.

In reaction to these realities, more and more people are choosing a point on the scale that allows them to employ armed men and women who look just like anyone else. An armed guard might look like just another churchgoer. For executives, that means ditching the black Suburbans that scream security and besuited agents. For houses of worship, that means a whole host of new options beyond merely hiring someone with a gun.

Today, even more synagogues, mosques and churches which previously would have considered security an afterthought are choosing to go further down the covert scale. Many of them now make it a priority to come up with formalized contact teams. Groups within the church or temple who have a security plan in place and people who each play a specific role in that plan. Often within those contact teams are current or former police officers or military members carrying concealed weapons. And many members of these teams are now being exposed to the same sort of covert techniques that experienced executive protection agents have been trained on for years.

Well-trained agents are highly skilled at observing and assessing behavior without being observed and assessed themselves by potential adversaries. They are adept at reading body language and recognizing physical and behavioral cues which are reliable indicators of imminent attack.

Overt security tells a potential attacker that their target is surrounded by protectors. They act as a visual deterrence.

Covert security offers no such obvious cues. Which is why the people providing that security are now trained to recognize pre-attack indicators, without being recognized as part of a security detail.

What these agents lose in visual deterrence, they gain in the element of surprise. And that surprise is only useful if they're trained to know when an attack is imminent.

There are now entire companies and nonprofits that specialize in doing nothing but that sort of training. Training like taking a church's ushers or deacons, the people on the front line of its perimeter and teaching them some of the same pre-attack indicators employed by actual agents.

This sort of training was gaining in popularity prior to Tree of Life, but will only be employed more often now in the wake of that shooting. The head of one nonprofit that helps recruit volunteers to assist in synagogue security recently said that his phone had been ringing “non-stop” since last Saturday.

More and more Americans are now unfortunately being exposed to the primary tension that’s always been present for executive protection agents: how to best balance security with freedom. What should be heartening to those same Americans, however, is that these agents have spent decades adapting, evolving and refining techniques and training that seek to solve that problem.

What they have to offer us shouldn’t be ignored. What’s more, Americans should know that the world they think they have to prepare for is probably one they’ve already been living in for a long time.

Bart Brown is a retired FBI agent with more than 28 years experience in protective security, intelligence and law enforcement. He now serves as Eagle Security Group’s director of protection services.