Carrie Cordero on Physical Security at Schools

By Benjamin Wittes
Tuesday, December 18, 2012, 9:52 AM

Carrie Cordero, Georgetown’s Director of National Security Studies and a former Justice Department official, writes in with the following provocative thoughts on the Newtown shootings and layered physical security in counterterrorism---and at schools:

So far, discussion after Newtown has focused on gun control legislation and our country’s unaddressed issues of mental health. Fair enough. Those discussions are wholly appropriate. They are needed. But they are also complex and will take time to work their way through public and political debate and, possibly, legislative process. They are also preventative only in a very long-term sense. We need to add to this discussion the physical security of our most vulnerable.

I want to see police officers posted out front at every school in America.

Yes, every school.

In the counterterrorism arena, we take a multi-pronged approach to preventing attacks. Significant components of this approach include intelligence gathering, analysis and sharing; investigation; physical security; and deterrence. The United States Government has been largely successful in this effort in the years since 9/11. Meanwhile, the national security, homeland security and law enforcement communities have struggled with how to address the threat posed by lone shooters, whatever their motivation, be it Islamist-inspired international terrorism; domestic terrorism; domestic violence; or, the unexplained. When it comes to a lone shooter, intelligence gathering, analysis and sharing have not been effective. (I have suggested previously that we should consider using sophisticated analytics for weapons and ammunition purchases, and I continue to think this should be considered in the context of a gun control discussion.) Unless the shooter develops confidants either in-person or online, investigation likely will not be triggered. And deterrence does not seem to work for the ideologically committed, or the insane.

Which leaves us with physical security. Many of us go to work in places far more secure than those in which our kids go to school each day. Following 9/11, federal, state and local authorities effectively hardened potential targets of terrorist attack. We turned soft targets into hard targets. When I worked in the federal government, I had to swipe a badge and walk past several guards. Visitors to federal buildings go through scanners and show ID. Purses and bags go through security machines. It works. Congress is protected along these lines when its members and staff go to work each day. Same for local government officials. Now, when I go to work at a university, I still walk past a guard who requires me to show an ID. Universities have campus police and uniformed guard forces. Dorms in large cities are guarded. Private companies all over the country have guards at the front desk.

We protect ourselves. Why aren’t we protecting our kids? Our babies.

A locked door and a buzzer are good ideas, and I would argue, security essentials. But trained, armed, active-duty law enforcement officers are the best physical security we can offer. If officers are assigned on rotation, for example, for a school year, they will get to know the faces of the kids and parents and caregivers who come and go each day. Officers will recognize when an individual looks out of place or threatening. They will possess skills to defuse a situation. And if needed, lethal force will be met with lethal force.

A good example of the successful effect of armed physical security in stopping a live shooter was the attempted attack at D.C.’s Holocaust Museum in 2009. In that case, security guards near the front of the building stopped the attacker, James W. Von Brunn, from going any further. Inside the museum were tourists, including school children. One guard lost his life. The shooter was neutralized. Lives were saved.

I know what the criticisms will be. There will be arguments about “resources.” That there are not enough police officers. Fine, departments can write less citations for expired emissions testing and hire more officers. Or there is not enough money to fund the additional officers. Fine, de-fund something less important. There is plenty of government waste. If nothing else, raise a tax. I hate taxes, but what’s one more for the highest priority there can be. There will be arguments that if we require officers in all schools, then why not in all other places: libraries, gyms, recreation centers, movie theaters. There will be arguments that it’s not the kind of world we want to live in where kids have to pass a police officer on their way to class.

Here’s what I would say: it doesn’t matter if we like it. It doesn’t matter if we’d prefer it weren’t so. It’s our job: as a government, as a civil society, as parents. Let’s get to work.