Differences Between Executive Protection Professionals and “Bodyguards”
By TorchStone VP, Scott Stewart
For most of my adult life, I’ve been involved in the security business, and I have spent countless hours serving on protective details for government officials, royalty, religious figures, business executives, and entrepreneurs. I’ve also spent a great deal of time assigned to protective intelligence teams supporting executive protection details.
Over the years, I have worked with a wide variety of protection professionals. Many of them were highly skilled professionals, but some of them were poorly trained and highly unprofessional.
My experience isn’t unique; anyone who has worked in executive protection for any amount of time has also encountered both extremes.
I want to take some time to examine the characteristics that separate executive protection professionals from the goons and why the latter should be avoided by those seeking protection.
Goons with Guns
One of the oddities that emerged from the investigation into the January 6th assault on the U.S. Capitol was the well-documented report that Trump supporter Roger Stone was protected by members of the Oath Keepers militia group while staying in D.C. on January 5th and 6th.
Some of the Oath Keepers members who served as Stone’s bodyguards were later seen involved in the assault against the Capitol and have been charged criminally.
It is not known if Stone knew his protectors were planning to storm the Capitol, but at the very least, this sequence of events illustrates that Stone employed questionable individuals to provide him with close protection.
He is not alone.
A long list of celebrities and political figures have hired questionable people, such as notorious motorcycle gangs or gang members, as bodyguards—bringing disastrous results. Some of the most egregious examples are the murder of Meredith Hunter at the Altamont Free Concert and the 2018 Brooklyn rapper Tekashi69 incident outside a New York restaurant.
The Rolling Stones’ road manager hired members of the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club to provide security at the Altamont Speedway music festival in 1969. In what only could passably be called security, violent altercations between the Hell’s Angels and the crowd ultimately degenerated in a Hell’s Angel member stabbing Hunter to death.
Tekashi69’s bodyguard, reportedly a member of the Nine Trey Blood street gang, had been barred from accompanying Tekashi69 into the establishment. The bodyguard retaliated by hitting a bouncer over the head with a chair and he was subsequently shot by the bouncer.
Unfortunately, there is a widely held misperception that if you want to hire a bodyguard, all you need is a large man who knows how to use his fists and a gun. But nothing can be further from the truth.
More than physical prowess, effective executive protection is really about the mental strengths of the agents or teams involved and their ability to prepare for, plan for, and avoid threats.
It is the mental aspects of protection that separate executive protection professionals from “bodyguards,” who in many cases may be little more than goons with guns.
Use of Force
First of all, I want to clarify that I am not a pacifist. Professional protection agents must be well-trained in both armed and unarmed combat. But these skills should be considered tools of last resort that should be employed only in worst-case scenarios.
Force—or the threat of force—should not be used haphazardly or be regarded as the first solution to every problem. I’d go so far as to say that if an executive protection agent has to resort to the use of force, they have failed, as their primary mission is to avoid such situations.
Ideally, a protection agent should never have to fight their way out of a tough situation. Rather, they should recognize a potential problem early enough to avoid it completely.
Action is always faster than reaction, and while intensive training can narrow the gap, a proactive approach is always preferable to a reactive one for protection personnel. Once the fists or bullets begin to fly, it is impossible to stop them, and even if you “win” a physical confrontation, there will often be significant reputational and legal repercussions.
A good illustration of this was the May 2017 incident in Washington D.C. in which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s protection team assaulted a crowd of journalists and protesters gathered outside an event Erdogan attended at the Brookings Institution.
The protection team “won” the fight, and while the assault charges brought against them were eventually dropped, they lost both in the press and in the court of public opinion, and the incident became an international embarrassment for the government of Turkey.
While the negative publicity tied to a security incident can sometimes enhance the “gangster” reputation of a rapper like Tekashi69, it doesn’t do much good for the image of most celebrities and business executives.
Such publicity can hurt a person or company’s brand and reputation, and can also lead to costly lawsuits. It is thus always better to avoid a confrontation altogether if possible, which highlights the importance of proactive tools and skills.
Proactive Tools and Skills
The critically important proactive skills possessed by executive protection professionals are mostly mental. They include an excellent sense of situational awareness, thorough logistics planning, good security and threat assessments, careful trip and individual site security advances, detailed contingency planning, liaisons with counterparts, and strict operational security.
Executive protection teams can also employ protective intelligence teams as a powerful force multiplier to investigate and assess threats, look for hostile surveillance and other signs of attack planning.
Verbal skills and the ability to deescalate and defuse a tense situation are also very important.
Unfortunately, untrained bodyguards are often ignorant of these mental aspects of executive protection or dismiss them as unnecessary. They view force, or a show of force, as the best answer to any threat.
This overreliance on physical force means that protection personnel will always have to operate on the reaction side of the equation, and this is a bad place to be if an attacker has been given free rein to assess security measures and plan an attack.
As we’ve seen in many cases, the presence of security personnel—even if they are armed—is simply not enough to protect a target from a determined hostile actor.
The same is true of physical security measures such as armored vehicles. If attackers are allowed to freely conduct surveillance against a target, they will be able to identify weaknesses in the security measures and find ways to exploit them.
Even highly-trained security officers who have been schooled in recognizing and responding to attacks are at a disadvantage once an attack is launched.
In addition to having the element of tactical surprise on their side, assailants have had time to factor security measures into their attack planning, and devise ways to overcome the measures. As a result, they can often bring enough people and the appropriate weaponry to overcome the security measures in place.
This principle was clearly illustrated in the June 2020 attack against Mexico City’s Secretary of Public Security, Omar García Harfuch.
The armored vehicle transporting García Harfuch was ambushed by a large attack team armed with heavy weapons, including .50 caliber rifles intended to defeat the vehicle’s armor.
Once an attack begins, the perpetrators hold an immediate advantage over the defenders. As they react, the protective detail must identify the source of the attack, the location, and direction of the attack, determine the number of assailants and their weapons, and figure out how best to respond and escape from the kill zone.
If the defenders are not mentally prepared, they can freeze and be unable to respond.
In García Harfuch’s case, his security team appears to have been killed in the initial volley of gunfire and the vehicle remained stationary in the attack zone.
However, while García Harfuch was severely wounded, he survived the attack simply because his attackers broke off their attack and left the scene—not because of any security measure.
This case serves as a vivid illustration of the importance of using proactive tools to detect and avoid attacks instead of relying on force alone to protect the principal.
All the Right Stuff
Because of all this, people who need executive protection coverage should be very selective of who they hire.
In addition to looking for candidates with extensive experience in law enforcement or corporate executive protection, savvy people should also seek candidates who display maturity, good judgment, psychological stability, intelligence, and well-developed social skills.
While these requirements will substantially narrow the pool of available candidates, the benefits of having a high-performing executive protection agent far outweigh the effort required to find one.
TorchStone Global can provide either part-time or full-time details staffed by skilled agents with extensive training and with a world-class team of protection professionals supervising and supporting them. TorchStone’s executive protection and protective intelligence staff have decades of experience in understanding, identifying, and avoiding threats. Let us put our experience to work for you.