By Sarge Gish, CPS
“The name Columbine is now synonymous with all school shootings just as the name Ferguson will now be associated with all civil disorder and protests”
I was asked to write an after- action report about my time in Ferguson for one of my friends who has a security blog. I felt time was on my side, since I had another detail to work shortly afterwards and the holidays were just around the corner. Little did I realize that Ferguson would be the beginning of a national period of social unrest in the country. Given the lack of moral responsibility among civilians to confront crime, resulting in destruction and mayhem, in many areas of the country the veneer of civilized behavior has been rubbed off. Unfortunately, from my point of view, I predict there will be plenty more non-peaceful protests. Currently, there are a lot individuals in this country who feel they can control or change how the rule of law is administered. I am not a Sociologist and do not intend to explain why people feel the way they do. Instead, I’ll stick with the elements of working a media protection detail.
Risk & Threat Assessment:
Being called upon to work an armed site security detail for a national security firm in St Louis the week heading into the Darren Wilson Grand Jury indictment, I had no idea what to expect. As everyone knows there were two waves of protests in the town of Ferguson and the city of St Louis.
I will refer both incidents as round 1 (Aug. & Sept. 2014) and round 2 (Nov. & Dec. 2014).
Not being on the ground for round 1, most of our risk and threat assessments were based off of intelligence from those incidents.
Our job was to evaluate one individual or group in order to make a determination whether or not the protesters had the potential to become violent against the news crews we were protecting. Also, the prevention of unintentional injury and embarrassment to the crews was a priority.
Knowing that there were viable threats in the weeks before the grand jury convened, we were better prepared to mentally plan and coordinate our moves, and equipment to bring.
The building I was securing (a major health insurance provider) was located downtown and under no immediate threat. Our intelligence indicated there was no apparent danger for the personnel there.
I had agreed to work for another security firm that was working directly in Ferguson which was associated with a local company named Triangle Sentry. This company was given the assignment of protecting Al Jazeera America and the Fox News crews.
The company is owned by and employs individuals who are ESI graduates. Being from ESI myself, I instantly recognized how much of a professional organization it is and felt comfortable with them having my back.
I had taken the Monday afternoon of November 24th off to try and conduct reconnaissance and build intelligence data. Also, this was the day the announcement of the verdict was to be read. Little did I know that this was the night we would be able to determine a threat assessment for the rest of the week.
There was no one out on the street in front of the Ferguson Police Department except two protesters. The coffee shop down the street was” business as usual” with the local citizens sitting around talking about the anticipation of a peaceful night and week.
Later in the evening when St Louis prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch was to announce the decision by the grand jury, I decided to leave the downtown area, which was still relatively calm, and go eat out on the main drag of West Florissant.
As the night progressed, you could feel the tension in the air. Within hours after the decision not to indict was made public, I stood on the corner of Chambers and West Florissant and watched a Mobile convenience store get looted. Shortly thereafter, gunfire was erupting up and down the street and stores were starting to burn. I left the area immediately knowing the Walgreen’s store in front of me was going to be the next target.
My advance was done. I had seen the violence that was predicted. It was time to help out the team (Triangle Sentry), which was already protecting the news crews that were already out there.
Mission and role of the Protection Assignment:
The news crews we were attached to had about 4 teams, each consisting of a correspondent, producer, and cameraman. They were constantly on the go, navigated by a higher up who was monitoring scanners, twitter feeds, and cell phones looking for any evidence of contention.
If you’re lucky, you can ride along with them. Otherwise, you need to follow as closely in your own POV and be ready to go.
Once you arrive at the site, you must make sure all your equipment is accessible along with the rest of the crew’s. As with any job associated with security, you must walk a fine line as to what you are allowed to do. Of course, we cannot physically restrain someone or display, threaten, or use our weapons unless it becomes a last resort.
Our job is to protect.
Though you are protecting the whole crew, the cameraman will be your main priority. It is their job to make sure they get the shot for the whole world to see. They are going to go into the middle of crowds of angry protesters to get it.
It is important to be within arm’s reach at all times and have a hand on their back to control their direction and balance.
You must be able to pull them out of situations when harm is prevalent.
Between the two waves of protests a rule called the “Keep Moving “ rule was implemented by the St. Louis County police, which prevented people, including the media, from standing still under threat of arrest. An injunction was issued by a Federal District Judge against the practice. But it was widely used during the 2nd round. It was our job to make sure our crews did not fall into that rule.
Unfortunately, one of the security contractors can testify to this. As I mentioned the importance of close contact with the cameraman, he was just far enough away to get caught up in what I call a police line rush into the crowd. Once taken down, they discovered his armored vest and firearm.
Though he was eventually released, he was initially arrested and spent the night in jail.
Planning and Preparation:
Equipment for this kind of violent civil unrest was crucial and must be in quality shape. It was important that all of us were dressed in civilian clothes to blend in with the protestors. So all concealment was vital.
There was no restriction on the type of firearm we could carry, but I would recommend a lighter caliber (9mm or 40) due to the constant movement in and out of vehicles and locations.
Concealable body armor is also essential with a minimum level III certification.
There was a lot of gunfire the first couple of days. But I also witnessed several knives on belts in the crowds as well.
I had a can of Sabre 3 & 1 pepper spray on my belt, which I planned on using for first use of force if needed. Unfortunately, I did not have the one piece of equipment that would have been helpful: a protective mask.
I noticed right away all the news crews had them. I was under the impression that I would not
need one until I got tear gassed, not once, but twice.
You do not need a military style mask, however. A common household cleaning respirator is sufficient.
Mental preparation is essential in being able to accomplish the task of protecting the media. You are dealing with unimaginable hatred by individuals who have no conscience as to what they are saying or destroying.
A prime example of this would be the security contractor I was working with. I’ll describe him as late twenties, reservist police officer from rural Ohio who never had to deal with this type of situation. His training was focused to serve and protect the citizens of his jurisdiction with any means possible, including use of force.
Unfortunately the morning after all the devastation from the first night, a group of black individuals confronted the Aljazeera news crew he was protecting demanding they go home. Thankfully, a St Louis County patrol came by to break up the demonstrators. He felt vulnerable and unprepared to deal with situation.
He went home that night.
The ability to maintain confidentiality with the news media is as important as having a firearm on your side. I noticed the Fox cameramen would take their logos off the cameras before we would go out. I wasn’t aware of such hatred towards them until hearing the verbal abuses directed about them in the crowds.
Also, I found it was important to let some in the crowd know you are with the media, just not what your specific role was.
A good example of this is when a large group of white and black individuals thought I was law enforcement. I was working with the Fox crew one night and the cameraman had struck up a relationship with one of the higher ranking (Capt.) Missouri State Police Officers during round 1. The Captain ( who I will not give out the name) pulled into the parking lot we were in with his patrol vehicle to give us a update as to what the night looked like. Unfortunately, the parking lot was in front of the Ferguson police station where all the protesters where.
They had seen us talking to him. They automatically assumed I was a cop assigned to the crew.
The ability to protect principals in an unpredictable crowd is a skill that must be practiced before execution. The majority of private security contractors are current or prior military or law enforcement and have had experience with unruly crowds. Not only is it a constantly changing dynamic of violence, but also a show of embarrassing actions, directed at organizations and businesses that protesters are affecting. So it is important that we, in the security industry, constantly prepare ourselves and study the ever- growing changes in the world of social and civil disobedience and protests.
We must assure ourselves at all times that we are appropriate while working media protection. And, most often, appropriateness is determined by a threat assessment and preparation.
As Rick Colliver states in his book Principal Protection: Lessons Learned, it is important to remember diplomacy, alertness, and professionalism.
An inappropriate response to a situation is the fastest way to unemployment.
In the future we hope there will be ongoing discussions of media protection for management and increased planning. My recommendation for anyone who works these details is to be involved with the discussions and participate
– Fox News crew with Producer, Cameraman, Correspondent, and Myself