Giffords Shooting: The Security Problem

Gabrielle Giffords chose to have no security at her Congress on Your Corner events, it's been well-reported by now.

No cops were standing by when Jared Loughner opened fire on innocent people, starting with Giffords. And the lack of security wasn't unprecedented: Other members of Congress held — and still plan to hold — similar events without police presence.

Ironically, though, some of the venues where Giffords held both Town Halls and "Corner" events had security despite the minimal lack of concern by Giffords — because venue managers know security is prudent when attracting large crowds.

"It's just good business," says Rick Klein, school community manager at the Buena Performing Arts Center in Sierra Vista.

At a Town Hall meeting on August 31, 2009 at the arts center, Klein brought in Arizona Rangers and both uniformed and plainclothes police, he tells New Times. The venue provided security at debates and other events at the center with Giffords, as well.

The security wasn't just for Giffords — it was to help make sure everyone at the events had a safe, enjoyable time, Klein says.

Even before the shooting, he probably wouldn't have recommended that a member of Congress hold a pre-planned, public event without a single security officer, he says.

Giffords announced the latest event in a January 7 news release on her Web site, stating that previous events had attracted 75 to 150 people. Also on the morning of the 7th, Giffords mentioned in an interview on Fox News how she'd held "very passionate" Town Hall meetings in southern Arizona.

In early August 2009, someone dropped a gun in the parking lot of a Safeway in Douglas during a "Corner" event, causing aides to express concern about her safety. It's unclear what happened to that concern in the months that followed.

Safeway spokeswoman Teena Massingill says the issue of security never came up between the grocery store chain and Giffords. The congresswoman held several of her Corner events at southern Arizona Safeway stores. But Safeway never stated any concern to anyone about security, and Giffords never mentioned it to Safeway officials, Massingill says.

As we reported on Friday, Safeway is now reconsidering whether to continue providing a forum for Congress on Your Corner events.

Massingill was not able to confirm whether or not a security guard was on duty at the Safeway at Oracle and Ina roads during the shooting. Safeway does hire security guards for certain stores, "based on their history," she says.

At the Safeway store at Rural and Broadway roads near Arizona State University, for example, an unarmed, uniformed security guard typically hangs out at night near the entrance.

If a guard was working the Tucson Safeway that day, he or she must have been far from the action, since media reports don't mention anything about such a guard. Had a uniformed guard been standing near Giffords, it's possible that the guard may have ended up shot like the other victims, especially if unarmed.

Then again, the presence of a uniformed guard — or better yet, a uniformed police officer — might have been a deterrent.

True, Loughner's reported state of mind shows he probably wouldn't have hesitated to shoot at a cop. But if he'd seen a uniform when arriving at the event, Loughner would have had a choice: Shoot at the intended target first or shoot at the cop. Either way, he would have had to deal with the cop.

Having an officer at the January 9 event "probably would have slowed or stopped the attacker," says Edward Mamet, a New York security consultant and retired New York City police officer.

Obtaining security would have been the responsibility, first and foremost, of Giffords and her staff, says Mamet, who spent some of his 40 years with the New York City Police Department assigned to a division that provides security for visiting dignitaries.

Rudy Giuliani, former New York City mayor, sometimes had as many as 35 detectives assigned to him for security, he says. Giffords and Giuliani clearly had different security needs. But if Giffords' staff members failed to have any security for Congress on Your Corner, "that was a mistake on their part," Mamet says.

The law enforcement agency in the jurisdiction where the event was held could have at least sent out an officer to take a look, Mamet says.

That agency, the Pima County Sheriff's Office, claimed to be unaware that Giffords had planned to hold the event.

"We did not know about the event at all. We were not requested to provide security," says deputy Erin Gibson, the agency's spokeswoman. "We did not know of any threats toward the congresswoman."

In New York City, Mamet says, a police officer might provide security or monitor an event that draws a crowd even if no security had been requested. Policy dictates that if a labor-union strike begins forming without any previous notice, police quickly descend on the scene to make sure it stays under control.

"If there was an event with no notification and police became aware that there was a crowd, routinely police would assign someone to be there," Mamet says.

Even for an event held in a privately owned parking lot, where issues of traffic or crowd control wouldn't be as acute as on public streets, "because the event's taking place and they know there are prior threats, they should still give it special attention," Mamet says.

By "special attention," Mamet says he means that, at the minimum, a patrol car be sent out for a drive-by.

Sam Giangardella, principal of Saguaro High School in Tucson, says he worked with Giffords' chief of staff, shooting victim Gabe Zimmerman, on the issue of security for a September 2009 Town Hall on health care reform. They planned for a crowd of between 1,500 and 2,000, so having police at the event was a no-brainer.

Besides that, "there was some additional security because of issues around the country," Giangardella says.

The police were supplemented by the presence of four unarmed campus security guards who normally work at the school, plus extra guards provided by the school district, he says. The security concerns were generalized: "I was more concerned about my school, my district and the reflection on the campus. People need to be orderly. It went off very well. There were no issues."

If he knew only 75 to 150 people would have shown up, Giangardella says he still would have provided school security, at least, for the event.

A Congress on Your Corner event at the Foothills Mall in Tucson on February 14, 2009, drew only 20 to 40 people, says the mall's general manager, Regina Harmon.

"She did not have any security here that we're aware of," says Harmon. "(Giffords) just walked around. She was right in the middle of the crowd. People would just walk up to her and talk to her one-on-one. It was a very low-key event."

Giffords may not have believed in security, but the mall does. Harmon says Foothills Mall employs four guards to provide 24/7 coverage. In the evenings, the mall hires off-duty deputies to shore up security.

The point is that while this isn't Caracas, where the average person needs a bullet-proof car, hindsight suggests that Giffords should have had a cop to watch over the Congress on Your Corner events. We see cops at nearly every corner construction zone, cops hanging out at public libraries, cops outnumbering demonstrators at political protests.

Presidential-style, 24-hour-a-day security isn't warranted for every member of Congress. But a high-profile elected official who meets the rabble in a random parking lot is extremely vulnerable, and therefore needs something better than zero security.

Some members of Congress, in the wake of the shooting, are flouting common sense by announcing to the world that not only will they keep holding Congress on Your Corner events, but they'll do so with nothing but faith in humanity to protect them.

Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf told the news media last week he'll keep talking to constituents "in a personable manner. That means no security at the Lions Club meetings or luncheons at the Kiwanis Club."

Such bravado seems unwise. Yet "very visible security could be a deterrent to constituents" who want to meet their Congressional representatives, says George Burke, press secretary for Virginia Congressman Gerry Connolly.

"Certainly, you get some folks who are not nice, to put it lightly," Burke says. "But unfortunately, it's part of the job. Somebody has a beef — they want the right to confront their congressman and get into it a little bit."

Like Wolf, Connolly also vowed last week not to beef up security.

Still, we doubt that publicly announcing a complete lack of security will be a very long-lived trend.

UPDATE: Douglas Police Chief Alberto Melis took it upon himself to provide police officers at one of Giffords' Congress on Your Corner events in 2009.