I was at an Infragard sponsored terrorism symposium this week I heard three well respected panelists, all professional security practitioners, use the term “the new reality” several times over the course of the hour. Much of what they had to say was insightful, intelligent and well thought out, but the concept that our future is a series of ever increasing high profile attacks and expanding incidents of workplace violence is not necessarily the case. While we have reaped the security benefit of debt-fueled spending, favorable demographic shifts and excessive incarceration, those means of security are no longer feasible mechanisms of reducing violence in our society. We need to adjust to that new reality.
“The new reality”, as used by the panel and generally by security professionals at large is frequently referencing what is different about the enemies, criminals, or terrorists we face. Most security professionals are trained to analyze threat behaviors in hopes of predicting and preventing negative outcomes and when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail at first blush. Sadly this focus on threat has many in both government and private security overlooking the most effective security strategy available to us, which is the engagement of our own society. The new reality has far less to do with “them” regardless of how you define “them”, and much more to do with American society.
America has numerous examples of engagement resulting in impressive progress in the areas we choose to focus on. When we look at the effectiveness of occupational health and safety programs the reduction of lost days at work due to illness, injury, and fatality, the numbers show a consistent and impressive decline. This has been accomplished almost exclusively through education and training of the existing workforce. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration provides training guidelines and support and monitors compliance, but they are not the ones making the declines happen – American workers doing it themselves.
Our Federal, State and Local Fire prevention programs are another example of a successfully managed community education and training program. The percentage of fires that are stopped by the general public far exceeds those that firefighters have to respond to because just about every person in the community knows how to use a fire extinguisher, create defensible space and to cut the power when working with electricity. Deaths and injuries from fires have declined for the past forty years despite the population increase. Educating people on fire safety and prevention is a primary function of fire departments nationwide. Further, firefighters are deeply embedded in most communities in that over 69% of America’s firefighters are unpaid volunteers.
Outside the military, law enforcement, and intelligence communities, security education and training are practically nonexistent for private citizens. Aside from the anti-drunk driving campaigns at our nation’s high schools, personal safety and security programs are largely non-existent. In recent years, departments have started to change that trend by developing information sharing protocols with private and corporate security, and conducting “community outreach”. Public / Private partnerships like the FBI’s Infragard, and their citizen’s academy are spearheading the effort, but they are generally focused on security industry practitioners. A mere 6% of police officers are comprised of unpaid reserve officers or volunteers. This lack of engagement is a critical component of the disconnect we are seeing in many American cities today.
A large portion of our security problem is a failure to educate the American public about their role in the protection of our communities. Worse, we even promote the concept that someone else can take responsibility for your safety, or protect you. It is a ludicrous assertion. Military professionals and police understand they are first and foremost responsible for their own safety. As long as we operate on the assumption that our security can be outsourced to a select group of dedicated professionals, regardless of how talented they are, we will fail to achieve security. What we are asking of our police now is beyond the pale in many cities in this nation.
The recent and impending increases in violence are not fore-drawn conclusions. We can minimize the incidents and mitigate risk, but the tools of the past, incarceration, excess reliance on dedicated professionals and favorable demographics will not do it. It takes an invested, integrated and functional community. Sadly, the communities most fractured by violence are too often those with the worst relationship with first responders. Rebuilding trust, educating and engaging the community will serve us far better the analyzing the mantra of the next extremist organization of decade. We cannot change “them”, but we can change “us”. That is the new reality which is fueling the increased violence of recent years. We owe future generations far better than this.