Risky Business: Learning to Play it Safe
(Or, How Abortion Providers Can Protect
from Anti-Choice Harassment)
by Joyce Arthur
© copyright 1996, 1998 (revised)
First version published in Pro-Choice Press, Summer
Second version published in Body Politic, Sep/Oct 1998
Violent and harassing anti-choice activity is often targeted towards individual abortion providers, clinic staff, and activists. To protect ourselves, many of us decide to implement various personal security measures. Although it's unfortunate to have to divert precious time and resources to prevent such unjustified attacks, putting at least some personal security measures into place will decrease the risk of becoming a target, and may help ease the stress of living and working in what some of us call a "war zone".
Abortion providers should build a relationship with a sympathetic person experienced in the personal security business. Personal security is all about protecting the safety of yourself, as well as your family, your staff, and anyone else close to you. Physical security, on the other hand, is the protection of your possessions, including your home and vehicle. Most people in our society are more concerned about having their stereo stolen than they are of being shot by a terrorist, but for abortion providers working within a terrorist atmosphere, personal security should always take precedence.
A personal security specialist can provide threat assessments to abortion providers and activists. This involves collecting information on the history and nature of any threats or violence to date; evaluating the person's activities, habits, and lifestyle to discover any risk factors; examining the person's home, office, and vehicle to evaluate the degree of protection offered; and talking to family members, colleagues, and any other people who have information or insight into the nature of real or potential threats.
Many doctors, staff, and other individuals are naive about the real violent potential of the anti-choice movement, or personally feel immune from any danger. It's important to realize, however, that the anti-choice don't always target specific, high-profile individuals. Often, they will shop around for the easiest mark. Any abortion doctor will do. If they can't access a doctor, any staff member will do. And so on. If you're a member of a group involved in providing or protecting abortion services, and you're its weakest link (security-wise), you may be at risk, regardless of your relative importance or profile in the group. But if you do have a high profile within your group, you risk attracting attention not only to yourself, but to others around you. Therefore, doctors who perform abortions have a serious responsibility to protect their family and staff, as well as themselves.
The rest of this article outlines specific security measures that abortion providers, clinic staff, and activists are encouraged to implement.
Most people who are targeted by the anti-choice are surveilled or stalked prior to any attack. Be alert and become surveillance conscious. That means you should get in the habit of looking out for suspicious activity or persons around you. Although you can't stop going out in public, you can always pay attention to what's happening around you. You're particularly vulnerable in open spaces, so keep moving and limit your exposure. Also, try to vary your habits—anything that might make it easy to monitor and target you. For example, don't frequent the same restaurant for lunch every day and don't always leave your house at the same time each day.
There are four critical steps to a planned attack. First, your would-be attacker must select and locate you. Second, he has to identify you by sight to make sure he's got the right person. Third, he must surveil you and plan his attack. And fourth, he must carry out the attack. If you make yourself a difficult target at each of these four steps, your would-be attacker is more likely to give up and look for an easier mark.
Security measures should be "layered." No single thing on its own will stop an intruder, and no amount of security may stop a truly determined attacker. But each security measure you implement represents one more obstacle that the attacker must solve, one more delay that consumes his valuable time. Professional, well-prepared assailants can gain access to you in a matter of moments. The longer it takes for them to reach you, and the more difficult it is, the greater risk they run of exposing themselves or leaving evidence.
There are two trains of thought for protecting yourself: hide in plain sight (i.e., make yourself difficult to find), or turn your home and office into Fort Knox. The ideal solution is probably a blend of both.
To hide in plain sight, get an unlisted phone number, a call display device, and a post office box. There's no reason to ever give your home address to anybody, other than to people you're inviting over. Get your address out of databases, including your HMO, insurance companies, telephone services, your bank, cable company, credit card companies, and any others you can think of. If possible, get your name out of databases. If you live with someone else who is low risk, put everything in their name. Get in the habit of using your first initial to identify yourself, especially when signing anything. Put out your trash and recycling just before the trucks arrive, not the night before. Full trash cans and recycling boxes sitting around in your back alley are an open invitation for anyone who wants to find out more about you.
Invest in a cell phone and keep it with you at all times—even when you're asleep, or out working in the yard or garage. Help will be only a phone call away, plus a cell phone allows you to move about while talking. Also, don't discuss highly secure information over any phone, and don't give out personal data to callers unless you know who they are.
Once you are well hidden, start enhancing personal security around your home and business. But don't worry about your belongings—get insurance, and let intruders take whatever they want. Your goal is to protect your personal safety and that of your family, not risk it, so don't play the hero.
There are three main areas to protect: your place of work, your vehicle, and your residence.
Clinic / Workplace
In the medical business, your security measures must strike a balance between easy public access and restrictive physical security measures. You may not want to go to the extreme of a "mantrap" (a separate, locked entry cubicle with a buzzer), but all staff should at least be fully aware of potential dangers and keep an ever-watchful eye for suspicious persons. If you're a tenant in a building, talk to the building manager and your neighbors and ask them to pay attention, too. If you're in a stand-alone clinic, glance out your windows frequently for suspicious persons or activity. If possible, hire a guard or use security volunteers at street level. Maintain an open view of your entranceway and install a camera if necessary. Also, keep a detailed daily security log of any incidents that occur. Identify and photograph anti-choice protesters, especially regulars, and keep the photos and any other relevant information on anti-choice activity in a scrapbook.
If you're the first staff person to arrive at the clinic in the morning, look around for any suspicious persons or activity. Ensure the windows and doors of the clinic have not been tampered with. Scan the perimeter and entrance area of the clinic for anything that doesn't belong, such as a potted plant or a package. If you do see anything unusual or suspicious, don't touch it, and don't go inside the clinic. Just call the police.
Once inside the clinic, do a walkthrough to ensure nothing has been disturbed. Check inside waste receptacles, plants, closets, furniture, and other hidden areas for anything that doesn't belong. Be alert for unusual or unpleasant smells. During the day, all staff should be pro-active when it comes to noticing unfamiliar objects left lying around.
Don't accept packages at the clinic that you can't identify as legitimate. Be suspicious of gifts, such as flowers or boxed candy. Use a single trustworthy delivery company for all your shipments and ask your suppliers to use it as well. Get in the habit of asking unfamiliar delivery persons for identification. Finally, watch for letter bombs—they look like ordinary letters, but may be a bit lumpy and have grease spots on the outside. Don't open them—just call the police.
Your car is the weakest link. 80% of terrorist attacks occur in and around vehicles. Consider installing a car alarm, which, besides its obvious benefits, can also be set off in transit if you need to attract attention to yourself. Your vehicle must also be dependable. Use the same reliable service person and join AAA.
Always park as close as possible to your destination, and whenever possible, park in secure garages or parkades. This makes it harder for someone to tamper with your car. If you have a garage at home, park in it and close the door—that way, attackers can't tell if you're home or not. When away from home and returning to your car, try to stay surrounded by other people. Have someone walk you to your car if you're going to be exposed.
Quickly inspect your vehicle as you approach it and when you reach it. Never enter your car if it looks like it's been tampered with. Make sure no one is hiding inside and that the interior looks untouched. If your locks are gummed up, or if there is anything at all suspicious, don't stand around trying to fix it. Your attacker may be waiting for an opportunity to approach you. Walk immediately to a safe place, call police, and don't return to your car without help.
While driving, check your mirrors frequently and be alert for suspicious activity on the part of pedestrians or other drivers. Keep your windows closed and doors locked at all times. Air conditioning is a great feature, because you can keep your windows closed during the summer. Power locks and power windows are also ideal, because you can control all the doors and windows from the driver's seat. An automatic transmission is better than a standard, because there is less chance of stalling.
To make it harder to track you, don't use personalized licence plates. Also, it's extremely important to vary your travel routes—study a map and mark as many routes as possible, then use them. Know where safe havens are on all routes. These can include any place with people around, such as 7-11's, service stations, hospitals, police or fire stations, hotels, and so on. Try to stay on well-lit, well-travelled routes that you are familiar with. Once you've reached your destination, have all your belongings in hand and exit your vehicle quickly and efficiently.
Your car is a 4000 pound monster—and it's on your side. If you have to, you can use it as a weapon. Remember too, that if something happens, you can still drive with a shattered window or a flat tire. Don't stop moving till you're safe, and don't stop for strangers or in isolated areas. If you're forced to stop for any reason, it's usually safer to stay in your car with your doors locked. Be wary of minor accidents that aren't your fault—assailants may rear-end you so you will stop and get out of your car. To lose someone, make right-hand turns, not left turns where you risk becoming boxed into traffic. When stopped in traffic, always leave enough distance between your car and the vehicle in front to allow you to turn out in an emergency.
A dog is a superior security measure. It can serve as your first line of defence and become a major stumbling block to attackers. Get a dog that fits in with your lifestyle and that everyone in the family is comfortable with. You don't need a large, mean dog—a small or medium-sized one will do. Any dog has far better hearing and a better sense of smell than you do. And virtually all dogs bark. Most importantly, dogs have instinctive protective behaviour—whenever your dog is around you, it is automatically at work protecting you, even while you're relaxing or sleeping. A dog locked in a room or chained in a backyard can't offer as much protection, so it's important to keep your dog with you as much as possible. Travel with it and keep it in the house.
Good exterior lighting is one of the most overlooked security measures. Install it and always turn it on at night. If possible, install motion detector lights as well. Keep light fixtures out of easy reach. Intruders may drop by during the day to unscrew bulbs, then return at night to take advantage of the darkness. If a light stops working, check to see whether the bulb has been loosened before replacing it.
Fenced yards are a good security measure, and the fence doesn't even have to be high—it acts as a psychological obstacle.
Consider installing interior motion detectors or an alarm system, which need not be expensive. If you can afford it, replace your exterior doors with solid core doors, made of either wood or steel. An intruder can kick in a hollow door within 30 seconds. Also install deadbolt locks, and keep doors locked at all times, even when you're out in the yard. Close curtains and blinds at night and position your room lights close to windows so you're not backlit. Blinds and curtains should be fire-retardant and heavy so they will help stop projectiles and reduce shadows of people inside. Windows next to doors should be made of shatterproof Lexan glass. Sliding windows and doors should have track locks and basement windows should be screwed shut from inside.
Finally, once you've installed alarms, security lighting, and other measures, don't circumvent them, use them!
Get to know your neighbors and ask them to watch out for suspicious strangers or activity—they don't need to know the details of your lifestyle to make excellent lookouts. Become familiar with your neighbor's vehicles, so you'll more easily notice ones that don't belong. Remember also that attackers may be surveilling your house, usually in their vehicles. In particular, be wary of vans, trucks, and vehicles with heavily tinted windows.
Identify a "safe room" in your house and ensure that all family members know this will be the place to go in case of emergency. Also, devise an emergency plan, including an evacuation plan, and stage a drill now and then when everyone's home. Keep emergency equipment available in your home.
Remember—stay alert, stay low, stay safe!