Fixing Security Holes Before Murder and Mayhem

by Stephen Bryen

Victim at Ft. Lauderdale

Victim at Ft. Lauderdale

There is very poor security in most public places, something that can be fixed but usually isn’t until tragedy strikes.  The latest –a gunman, maybe two shooting down travelers in the baggage delivery section of the Ft. Lauderdale airport.  As this is still unfolding, five dead have been reported and nine wounded.  The “motive” is still not known.

The range of soft targets for terrorist crimes –whether active shooters, bombs, crashes is quite long.  Public places such as rail stations, markets, airports, clubs, restaurants, government buildings and public squares are just some of the possibilities.

Security is always stretched very thin, but there are some obvious and relatively cost effective ways to mitigate the danger that is everywhere lurking.

Shooters, for example, exploit soft targets wherever possible.  Harden the target even a little and the shooter’s options narrow considerably.

In the Ft. Lauderdale case there does not seem to have been any armed guards in the baggage claims area.  

Most baggage claims are very close to the roadway so that arriving passengers can be quickly picked up. Typically in the United States there are lots of police outside, mostly to guard against a car or truck bomb; but few, if any, inside.  Likewise there is usually nothing to prevent a potential shooter from walking through the door.

The same is true in ticketing areas.  Again outside there are plenty of police, but rarely do you see police inside unless there is a security incident that draws them to a specific spot.  If someone leaves a bag unattended, ticketing counters will alert security, the area will be cleared and the bag secured.  But when it is a shooter in the same space, the reaction time is often too slow to prevent the shooter from claiming victims.  Security is not present around the ticketing counters in most cases.

Had there been an armed guard in the baggage area, there is a good chance he (or she) would have taken down the shooter.  From what we know, the Ft. Lauderdale shooter was brazen enough to walk up to people and shoot them dead, and then re-load his gun to take more victims.  Since automated baggage claim areas rarely have anyone supervising the process, the time it takes to alert internal security personnel is too long to be effective.

The presence of armed guard not only can mitigate the number of lives taken by a shooter, but also is a deterrent to the crime in the first place.  Shooters gravitate to soft targets and want to do maximum harm.  An armed guard means they can’t carry out their objective.

The problem is more complicated with someone with a bomb in a suitcase or backpack.  One “fix” is not to let anyone into the baggage area from the street –make the exits from baggage claims one way.  This would not totally eliminate the risk, but it blocks the easiest route into the airport baggage area.

At the departure side it is more complicated because people are often pouring in from outside in numbers –either exiting cars or busses.  People also are carrying bags and packages into the airport, especially in this era of carry-on.  Trying to scan everything and everyone outside only moves the problem to the outside line, which will be formidable.  It does not remove the danger.

However, random scanning is a deterrent and could work in reducing risk of a bomber or shooter.  TSA is already doing random scanning before letting people through the security lines inside the airport.  Moving some random scanning outside plus armed guards would be an important step in warning off would be shooters and bombers.

One needs to remember that TSA is responsible for what gets on an airplane, not for overall security in an airport.

The problem is also bad in rail stations and metros.  Here the volume of people is very high.  Again, armed guards and random checks would get the word around that the target is not necessarily soft and that the bad actor might get caught.

Finally, as I have recommended elsewhere, some public areas need Jersey barriers and guards.  The recent events in Germany and France clearly illustrate how public gatherings and outdoor markets are vulnerable.

There is no substitute for good intelligence, but intelligence must be coordinated with security measures and active law enforcement.  While it may be unpopular, when there are real suspects they need to be put out of business well before they commit any crime.  The Germans knew the threat by name well ahead and decided to do nothing.  There are many parallel cases.  Laws that protect terrorists from police enforcement need to be changed.  Otherwise, the number of victims –innocent victims– will continue to rise.