I recently attended a conference at which an esteemed venue industry executive described a new safety initiative for the arenas he is supporting. Having just hired a high profile former police commissioner as a consultant and partner, the executive told us that his member arenas would attempt to extend their security perimeter beyond the usual entrance points, the “hard shell” of the building currently protected by guards and magnetometers. Using models developed in the military, the goal would be “not just a physical perimeter or security, but a conceptual one that goes far beyond the venue itself.”
As I listened one year after the November 13, 2015 terror attacks in Paris, my first impression was simple and positive. Everyone is for safety. Yet the more I thought about the implications, the more it got complicated.
SECURITY IS ONLY AS STRONG AS ITS WEAKEST LINK
I have the utmost respect for people who work security. Effective private and proprietary security guards must remain vigilant even during long hours when seemingly not much is happening. They are trained to notice threats, correctly identify them, and initiate appropriate responses under duress. They must be crowd managers, psychologists, and fight referees, willing to lay their lives on the line, all for a very modest hourly wage. And they can’t even watch the show.
Not surprisingly, some guards are not as attentive as others, and security technology is only as good as the people using it. As walk-through magnetometers, purportedly more effective than even hand-wanding, have become more common, I have watched what happens when patrons set off the machine. In cities across the United States, it has not always been pretty. I am always glad to see a full array of cameras monitored 24/7, but that is more useful for identifying someone who has done something wrong than preventing the wrongful act in the first place. People knowledgeable about unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) tell me they are the next great advance in security. Someone still has to operate them and interpret what they find.
This point is pretty obvious. While the idea of extending a venue’s security perimeter is appealing, the effectiveness of that idea is limited by the same thing that limits the effectiveness of security now — guards are human beings, and even the best companies in the biggest venues have weak links.
Incidentally, one thing about which we can be certain about extending a venue’s security perimeter is its cost — more.
HOW MUCH SAFER WILL WE BE?
Security does not eliminate a threat. A “hard shell” venue does not disarm someone committed to doing harm — it makes them choose a softer target somewhere else. So if dealing with security threats is a zero sum game, how much does it matter that certain venues are trying to at least look more secure, if we all patronize other less secure venues as well?
The facts regarding the Paris attacks illustrate the nature of security as a giant game of Whack-A-Mole.
Most people remember that the Bataclan nightclub was attacked by three gunmen carrying assault weapons, killing 89 people in that one location. In the venue and event industry, many professionals also recall the three explosions outside Stade de France, one of which occurred outside the stadium walls thanks to an alert security guard. Three suicide bombers and one bystander were killed there.
Less often noted are four other attacks that same night, although they are significant for our purposes. Gunmen with assault weapons killed 15 people at a restaurant called Le Petit Cambodge and a bar named Le Carillon in Paris’ 10th Arrondissement. Five more people were gunned down outside Café Bonne Biere in the 11th Arrondissement. At a nearby restaurant called La Belle Equipe, gunmen killed 19 people sitting outside. And a suicide bomber blew himself up inside the Comptoir Voltaire restaurant, injuring several patrons.
It is a fine thing for patrons to enter a heavily fortified arena, confident that the many layers of security will protect them for the duration of that event. But Paris shows that unless one never visits a more lightly secured restaurant, bar, or nightclub before or after the arena show, we are exposed to the same safety risks anyway — just at a different location.
This applies to more than just Paris. When the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting happened, security experts were asked if that would keep people from going to movies — it hasn’t. After shootings in shopping malls in Olympia, Washington, Munich, and elsewhere, there was speculation that people might stay away — they haven’t. To the contrary, we visit public accommodations that have unsecured entrances all the time. As soon as we walk out our front doors, most people live and work in a series of soft targets.
THE STANDARD OF CARE?
Being a lawyer, I pay close attention to the applicable standard of care for live event venues. From this perspective, I have two concerns about the idea of extending a venue’s security perimeter.
First, when patrons get hurt, they look to the promises the venue or event operator made about keeping them safe and healthy. It is a wonderful thing for an arena to assure its guests that it will keep them secure from bad guys. But with that promise comes the obligation to fulfill it, every time. Well-financed venues operated by skilled professionals and supported by savvy consultants will have every opportunity to mark a new gold standard for venue security. But even the best among us have feet of clay. And if there is a breach at one of these venues, their own security plan will be Exhibit A as the standard of care applicable against them.
I am more concerned about smaller venues with tighter budgets in secondary and tertiary markets, and festivals and outdoor events that have a more porous perimeter by definition. The standard of care may change for them too.
Again, start with the idea that a bad guy is more likely to seek out a soft high-value target than one with a harder shell. When disaster strikes next, as terrorism experts insist it will, grieving families will look for the full array of measures taken at leading venues, no matter where the incident takes place. And if you think it’s not fair to hold less prosperous venues to the same security standard as the richest ones, I assure you that every lawyer knows the accusation that someone “put profits over people.”
PERSPECTIVES ON SAFETY
Taking action is always better than doing nothing. I appreciate any determination to harden the shell of a venue against security threats. Additional resources, better planning, and improved training are all important. I also believe in the ability of ordinary people to pay slightly closer attention to the everyday risks and threats around them, and to take reasonable measures to reduce the likelihood of a bad outcome. What I do not favor is becoming attracted to shiny objects to the exclusion of existing proven strategies.
In my sports and entertainment practice, as well as in the news stories I collect in anticipation of teaching my “Risk Management in Venues” course at Arizona State University this Spring, the incidents that threaten the long-term health of the live event industry rarely relate to terrorism. Most of the “bet the farm” lawsuits I see involve various controlled substances and/or dangerously poor choices, often involving communication problems and allegedly mismanaged crowds.
As if we needed the reminder, Paris showed that the threat of terrorists or other active shooters is real. But the law requires people to address the most reasonably foreseeable risks about which they can make a difference. This means that reasonable professionals should also support programs that enhance workplace safety and event medical care, harm reduction and crowd management, weather planning and incident command, and even the contracts that tie the relationships together and purport to allocate duties and responsibilities.
These latter issues I’m trying to do something about.