Wilson: Keeping Safe — Personal Security in Public Life

Posted January 26, 2011 at 5:49pm

The horrific events in Tucson, Ariz., earlier this month will cause a review of security for Members of Congress. As in previous reviews conducted after the murders of Capitol Police Officers John Gibson and Jacob Chestnut in 1998, the anthrax attacks and 9/11, I expect Members of Congress will reject procedures that isolate them from their constituents. Even so, there are measures that Members can take — particularly new Members — to improve safety for themselves and their staffs.

Members need to accept that if you haven’t been threatened yet, you will be. Threats come in a variety of forms — in the mail, in e-mail, in person or related through a third party. Plan in advance for how you will handle them, and keep in mind that context is more important than content. A constituent who makes staff feel uncomfortable because of irrational adoration or indirect or veiled references can be more serious than an insincere remark made by someone in the heat of the moment having just received word that their benefits are denied.

Develop a checklist for your public events and include items related to security in it so that every staffer and intern has a standard procedure to follow and security concerns are taken into account when planning. The checklist will make your staff think about security and be aware of their surroundings. Do we need security on site? Where are the entrances and exits? Is this on the publicly available schedule?

Designate one of your staffers — probably your district director — to be the liaison with local law enforcement and the local office of the FBI. They should meet at least a few times a year so that when a threat happens, your staff will have established, trusting relationships with those responsible for your security.

Talk to the chief law enforcement officers responsible for where you live. Ask them to “flag” your residence in their 911 system and ask for their direct phone number to carry in your wallet. When we had occasional specific threats, I always found local law enforcement and the FBI to be helpful and responsive.

Likewise, if you have young children, talk to the principal and other responsible adults at school about security. Before each election campaign, when your public profile goes up, talk to them again. You can create a bubble of alert adults around your children without your children being aware of it or being unnecessarily frightened.

I know of one Member who routinely employed retired or off-duty law enforcement officers as part-time employees. They were drivers and in plain clothes, but they provided a level of security without being obtrusive. Others Members have concealed carry licenses or staff who carry concealed.

Twice, when there were specific threats at public events, members of my “staff” and the “crowd” were actually armed undercover police officers. Nothing happened and my constituents never knew the difference.

Train your staff on how to defuse and de-escalate situations that could get out of hand. Most offices have protesters come from time to time. Usually, the organizers of the protest want attention for their cause. They are not there to be violent or to damage property. Of course, there can be hangers-on who are there to make trouble, and people sometimes do things in crowds they would not do if they were alone.

Our rule was that protestors demanding to see me or my staff would be invited to come in to talk with staff in groups of three or four at a time while other staffers brought water to the protestors if it was a hot day and chairs for the elderly. In a previous job, my former chief of staff ordered pizza for protestors staging a sit-in at the district office.

Members should also tag the records in your correspondence system of any constituent who has acted erratically or made threats in the past. Some may find that objectionable, but, for me, if a staffer felt uncomfortable for any reason, other staffers should know about it if the constituent requests to come in again.

If you read one book on protecting yourself, I would recommend “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker. Much of it has direct application to those who work on Capitol Hill.

Finally, the Office of Threat Analysis needs to develop a way to share information more freely with Members. If someone has made threats to one public official, Members of Congress should know who that person is, particularly if they are in the same state or media market.

All of us pray for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), her staff members and the families of the shooting victims. We want our government officials to be accessible and available, as Gabby was. Nothing can completely protect Members if they are going to maintain that accessibility. But there are some simple measures that can help.

Former Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) served in Congress from 1998 to 2009.