Safety & Security

Illusions of Security

Illusions of Security


The author waited in the rain for more than 40 minutes to pass through a metal detection checkpoint at this tourist venue in Washington D.C. A reasonably intelligent 12 year old could get a gun through the poorly run checkpoint at the end of this line. Knowingly presenting a façade of security can be not only unethical, but can result in significant exposure to civil liability and a tremendous loss of public confidence.

I did not mind waiting in the rain for 45 minutes to pass through a walkthrough metal detection checkpoint. What I did mind was waiting to pass through a checkpoint so poorly run that a child could figure out that they could easily pass through the checkpoint with several firearms concealed on their person. This was my experience the day after I keynoted the National Campus Safety Forum in our nation’s capitol this spring.

Each checkpoint involved one security officer standing by a walk-through metal detector while dozens of patrons per minute passed through the unit. Each person set off the detector in turn, but not one patron out of the hundreds I observed was checked with a hand held metal detector. This means the operator could not tell whether a portable phone or a high capacity 9-millimeter handgun was setting off the detector. Parents were pushing metal baby strollers through the checkpoint, and most patrons were carrying umbrellas through the units. These are all signs of an unreliable and easily defeated checkpoint.

I am not the only person who noticed these significant gaps in security that day. I overheard numerous patrons complaining about standing in the rain to go through a checkpoint that they also knew could be easily defeated. Certainly a well-studied aggressor could figure out how easy it would be to beat this type of checkpoint. A terrorist could also easily surmise that doing so to carry out an attack would result in intensive criticism of the organization operating the venue.

While properly operated and supported entry point metal detection can be extremely effective, knowingly operating an easily defeated checkpoint is simply unacceptable. As my visit was in the Fourth of July time frame, with an elevated threat level announced by the federal government, this is even more troubling.

Similar instances where a false promise of security is provided have occurred in K-12 schools. While security measures do not have to be foolproof, they should be implemented in a manner that makes them reasonably effective. I once attended a graduation ceremony at a state university to see one of my officers receive her graduate degree. As I passed through a walk through metal detector, I reached for my credentials to show the police officer staffing the checkpoint that I was authorized to carry my concealed service pistol. Before I could show my badge, the officer waved me through the checkpoint even though the unit “alarmed” as it should have. As I was carrying a service pistol loaded with twenty rounds along with two spare magazines and handcuffs, it was pretty evident that the checkpoint was a feel-good measure rather than a real barrier to an attacker.

With a single officer attempting to staff two different walkthrough detectors, responsibility for an incident would rest with his police chief and institution. This type of approach to campus security can quickly become “exhibit A” should litigation occur because an aggressor passed through a checkpoint while carrying one of more weapons. Whether the façade of security involves “dummy” security camera or security equipment that has been broken for long periods of time, it can be difficult to defend in a court of law or in the court of public opinion.

School leaders should deliver the level of security they imply or be prepared to accept full responsibility for the resultant tragedy when an aggressor defeats feel-good security measures.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Author

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