Dealing with protests, one security officers perspective!

Dealing with protests, one security officers perspective!

We live in a democracy where people enjoy the freedom to protest peacefully. The majority of protests are indeed peaceful, however we all know that there are those that are not!

As a security officer with long experience in the industry I’ve been on duty during numerous protests, both planned and with no prior warning. Generally things go off quite well with few problems. There are a few that stand out though!

I remember saying good morning to a small group of people who walked into the lobby of the building I was working in and being greeted politely in return. It was only to discover seconds later that they were protesters who then invaded the buildings by swarming into the lifts. It was before access controlled turnstiles and automatic lockdown of lifts became the norm.

Needless to say, it was an interesting morning. The police were called to remove them. It took a while as they had handcuffed themselves to desks. The question, “what could security have done to prevent this?” was obviously asked – the answer was ‘nothing’. For a start the building layout was all wrong for effective access control. The lobby was huge and only one security officer was on duty there at a time. The job was checking ID cards as people entered the building and directing guests to the reception team. Even if I’d managed to stop one protester, the others were already in the wind.

Access control measures in that building were fast tracked. These days access-controlled turnstiles or access lanes are the norm so the concept of a large lobby area with nothing to prevent people heading straight to the lifts on entering the building might sound off. It does to me now, I wouldn’t expect to experience this kind of set up anywhere anymore. However, it did keep us on our toes!

I’ve also experienced protesters come into buildings, smartly dressed, carrying brief cases and book in at reception before taking a seat. They told the reception team that they were waiting for a colleague who had their hosts details. They then waited for opportunities to tailgate or scope out the building’s security arrangements and any weaknesses that they could identify. Dealing with situations like this involves awareness. Don’t hesitate to check with your reception team what details they have about people waiting, or approach and speak to people and ask for additional details. What scouts should learn from your building is that there are easier targets elsewhere!

The first time I experienced a planned protest I was relatively new to the industry, having left the military a few months previously. I arrived to bolster the team at the building where the planned protest was to take place. There were several security staff on duty, with police officers and stewards outside with the protesters to ensure that everything went off peacefully. The protesters handed out leaflets, made a few speeches, took pictures and spoke to passers-by. After handing in a letter to the target companies media rep the protesters went on their way. All in all, a very positive experience from the security teams point of view.

People have a lawful right to protest !

The second experience was less positive. Again, it was at a target companies HQ. There was some problems expected so the resident security team was bolstered by several additional team members and a security consultant.

I have a great deal of respect for security consultants. I’ve been helped a great deal in my career by their input and expertise. However, I was less than impressed by this consultant. Let’s face it, when you are asked to protect a building during a protest it doesn’t take genius IQ to work out that locking the doors and windows to stop them getting in might be good moves?

I could be wrong but from what I could gather that was the sum of the consultants’ contribution on the day! They also committed the unforgivable sin of failing to stick to the plan once things started. I refused to open a side door to try and sneak in some employees who had left the building and failed to return prior to the agreed start of a planned 4-hour lock down.

They were insisting that they had to get to their desks and that heads would roll if they weren’t allowed in. As some of the protesters had already tried to get in and were still testing our defences, and a small number were watching to see if the side door would be opened, I refused to open it. General panic ensued between the consultant and the building manager.

I invited them to open the door and get the staff in themselves, and therefore be responsible for any protesters getting in. Mention of being responsible for a security lapse ended the argument. Apparently it was ok for me or my team to take a risk by not following an agreed plan but not for the people who’d agreed that plan to begin with! I was less than impressed!

If their staff got stuck at the local McD’s twiddling their thumbs because they didn’t read the memo it was not going to become my problem! Changing plans on the fly when there is no operational reason to do so is a good way to lose control of everything.

One of the protesters spent about 20 minutes trying to provoke a reaction from me. He had his face covered with a scarf. He would get as close to me and the locked front door as he could (all glass) and call me a ‘c**t, wa***er, and make many other disparaging comments before suddenly shutting up and waiting for my reaction.

If nothing else a career in the military and then working in the security industry makes one very observant. Every time the gentleman that was trying to provoke me stopped the verbal abuse one of his mates would turn on a camera. The ploy was obvious, if I reacted as they hoped I would, they would have a video of me meeting the stereotype that they were hoping to portray for their publicity machine, namely the security officer as the corporate lackey thug!

I wasn’t sorry to disappoint them. In those days’ cameras were a lot bigger than they are today. So, when I say ‘obvious’ it’s because it would have been impossible not to spot the camera. My assumption being that the protesters trying to provoke me assumed that I was lacking in intelligence and wouldn’t be able to work out what they were trying to do. After all, as they told me several times, if I had even half a brain I’d have been able to get a real job!

I was touched at their concern for my career opportunities!

This protest lasted about 2 hours. Again, there were stewards and a police presence, but it was obvious to everyone that there were a small number of people there only interested in stirring the pot!

Fast forward to today, cameras are a lot less obvious. A lens can be hidden at the centre of a button with leads going to the recording device secreted in someone’s pocket. Wireless models abound, live streaming to social media is common place. Every iPhone is a virtual recording studio with inbuilt apps, and there are numerous additional apps available making resources available to everyone, that previously would have been the preserve of large organisations with big budgets.

We are all aware of the saying, if you assume you make an ASS out of U and ME!

OK, its clever, but forget it. When dealing with ANYONE, anywhere, assume that you are being recorded! This is especially important during protests where some people will be looking for you to make a mistake that they can capitalise on.

A quick look on YouTube will reveal numerous videos posted featuring security staff.

I’ve not found many where a security officer saves someone’s life by showing up quickly with a defibrillator and starting first aid promptly. Neither have I seen many videos showing security staff intervening to protect the public from aggressive or violent people. Nor have I seen any videos where a security officer prevented a break in to premises at 3am, thereby saving a business from potential catastrophic loss and safeguarding its future and the future of its employees.

There are however plenty where security staff have become unwitting media ‘stars’ by either:

  • Responding to situations inappropriately
  • Unprofessional behaviour
  • Quoting laws that don’t exist
  • Attempting to exert authority in public spaces where they have zero jurisdiction
  • Allowing themselves to be provoked
  • Add your own here!

At the time of writing this article a video showing a security officer attempting to remove a blind shopper and their assistance dog from a shopping centre had recently gone viral on social media and been featured on national media outlets and newspapers. Not a great day for the officer involved, nor their employer and shopping centre where the incident occurred.

The incident also led to a spontaneous protest at the scene, where other shoppers intervened to prevent the disabled gentleman and their guide dog from being removed from the premises.

Bluewater security guard orders blind man with a guide dog out of the shopping centre to the fury of fellow shoppers:

If I had been there I would have been looking for the centre’s Security Manager as a matter of urgency. This is an extreme example, but it shows how quickly things can escalate and become the centre of a media storm!

It also raises another point, albeit indirectly. When it comes to protest, the calibre and knowledge of the security officer interacting with protesters is very important!

Before we move on I’ll share with you a sample of media stories about various protest situations that made the press:

And some documentation easily available to people planning protests via a google search:

Personally, I’m all in favour of peaceful protest. I’ve attended a few and support numerous causes that lend themselves to protest. Working in the security industry can lead to situations where you are having to maintain your professionalism when dealing with protesters whose views align perfectly with your own and whom you may have a great deal of sympathy with! However, the boundaries are clear, to me at least! If you really feel strongly take that day off and avoid the conflict of interest that might otherwise lessen your ability to do your job with the required levels of commitment.

Well informed protesters are the norm. For the security industry this quickly becomes a problem when a well-informed protester meets up with security staff who are not so well informed and who tries to engage with them!

I do a lot of security related research and one area that virtually everyone agrees on is the lack of consistent, relevant and ongoing training available to frontline security officers. There are many reasons for that, not least of which is are the large numbers of security officers and their diverse roles and employment situations.

However, protests, handled badly, have the potential to create major problems for all involved. A quick skim of reports will show criminal charges being brought or considered, affecting either side, civil suits may develop, negative media coverage, loss of reputation and financial and other losses incurred through damage or disruption, are all possible. The last person you want working alongside you or representing a client in that kind of situation is someone who doesn’t really know what they are doing. I’d also throw in that I’d like to avoid hotheads as well!

Skimping a couple of thousand on a training budget might meet immediate budgetary requirements. However, does that ‘saving’ stack up compared to the potential reputational cost that comes with being the centre of a negative media storm?

How much do you think companies whose logos end up on the news when things go wrong would have paid to have avoided it if time machines existed that would allow them a reset? The shopping centre that made the headlines when one of its security staff told a blind shopper that he had to leave with his guide dog issued a statement mentioning ‘urgent’ retraining. My first thought was that proper ‘pre-training’ would probably have been better.

As part of writing this piece I asked Eclipse Strategic Security if I could have a look over their City & Guilds accredited, ‘Dealing with Protest’ training course.

Many of you will be aware that Eclipse are sponsoring the first 3 editions of TPSO Magazine. Their support allows us to have printed a short run of hard copies of the magazines for distribution to key people and companies in the industry.

I’m not even going to pretend to be neutral where Eclipse are concerned. They’ve done a lot to help the magazine and raise awareness of it to a wider audience.

They are also the only company that I could find that offer a 2-day course in dealing with protest, which is very comprehensive and independently accredited by City & Guilds. A short reading list is provided which delegates are expected to complete before the start of training so the course is aimed at highly motivated delegates.

Its a practical course so it would be difficult for me to properly assess the standard without attending myself. However, based on a review of the written notes its hard not to be impressed.

I joined the security industry in September 1989, so close to 3 decades experience. Training and education makes a huge difference to the individual, their teams, employer and clients if different.

Protests are a part of life and are likely to become more common. Security staff are always in the front line and with decreasing police resources these security officers are going to need to be more knowledgeable and able than at anytime in the industry’s history.

People have a lawful right to protest. There are a lot of things to protest about, so we are likely to see more and more protests in the coming years.

Those who provide security services at those protests need the appropriate levels of training to ensure that they conduct themselves properly and safely and within the law…