Forming a Dignitary Protection Unit

You are minding your own business, going through the daily routine, when you are notified that a highly controversial figure has been invited to speak at a public forum that will be held on campus in two weeks. You are tasked to provide officers from your university police department to coordinate security for the event. You learn that the speaker’s security team does not typically work well with law enforcement officers. You are disturbed to find out that members of the speaker’s security team are known to carry illegal firearms, including fully automatic weapons. Some of the security team members are also reported to be convicted felons. In addition, there are concerns that several hate groups may try to protest the speaker’s presence on or near campus during the event.

In another instance, the Dean of the law school has requested that the university police department provide two officers to protect a high-profile Attorney General from another state who has agreed to serve as a guest speaker. The Attorney General is well known for her efforts to prosecute organized crime figures, corrupt politicians and drug lords. A contract has been placed on her life by a major drug cartel. Your officers are to pick her up at the airport, transport her safely to the speaking engagement, protect her during dinner and return her safely to the airport the next day. And, of course, your officers are expected to ensure her safety, while remaining inconspicuous.

I received these assignments, along with several dozen other dignitary protection details, during my 20-year campus law enforcement career. These experiences provided me with a healthy respect for the difficulty and importance of dignitary protection assignments for appearances and events that are a valuable and essential part of the academic environment.

Typically, campus law enforcement agencies are tasked with helping to ensure the safe and uneventful visit of public figures. Mistakes that are made in handling these duties can quickly become major issues. With proper preparation, adequate training and hard work, the chances that major problems will be encountered can be reduced significantly.

One way for campus law enforcement executives to effectively deal with the challenges posed by these situations is the development of a dignitary protection unit. This type of team consists of security or police personnel who will receive specialized training and can be pulled from their normal duties when they are needed for a special detail.

It is important to select a capable individual to coordinate the department’s dignitary protection efforts. This type of assignment requires flexibility, good communications skills, solid organizational skills, sound judgment and tact. Dignitary protection assignments frequently require considerable coordination with a wide range of individuals and organizations. For example, one visit might require coordination with local police officials, state police personnel, the United States Secret Service, the public affairs office, grounds and maintenance personnel, food service employees and a number of others who must work together to ensure that the visit is a smooth one. It is also common for several dignitaries to visit a campus for the same event. This type of situation can make coordination even more challenging.

Once a staff member is selected to develop a unit, consideration must be given to the different law enforcement roles that will be needed for various situations. While it is easy to become focused on those personnel who will be assigned directly to a dignitary, additional personnel are often needed for other tasks. Properly trained personnel may also be needed to deal with traffic control, pre-visit site surveys, vehicle escorts, securing critical areas before the arrival of dignitaries, perimeter control, weapons screening and other duties as dictated by the situation. It should also be noted that law enforcement agencies have a duty to protect those who come on campus to attend the event. If large numbers of people are expected to arrive, standard security measures for large special events will also be required.

Of course, each campus safety agency has different resources. The number of staff, vehicles and amount of communications equipment your organization has will all play a part in determining what is realistic for your team. The types and frequency of dignitary visits that have historically taken place in your setting are also a factor that will determine your needs. Dignitary protection details can range from fairly simple and straightforward escort duties to elaborate events. By planning in advance for the situations that are likely to arise, campus law enforcement officials can create efficient operations that provide the safe and smooth visits that we all desire.

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International Inc., an IRS-approved non-profit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety and can be reached through the Safe Havens Website at

About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at