Quebec shooting shows tricky side of guarding politicians

Security for politicians is the RCMP's responsibility at the federal level, while provincial police forces provide protection for premiers. The challenge is getting the right balance between security and accessibility. So how do police protect politicians?

Balancing security and accessibility poses a challenge for police

Six critical minutes

9 years ago
Pauline Marois was whisked off the stage during her victory speech Tuesday night after a man opened fire outside the hall where she was speaking. CBC's Ioanna Roumeliotis describes what happened 9:10

The video of plainclothes Quebec provincial police hustling premier-designate Pauline Marois from the stage in the middle of her election victory speech provided a rare glimpse of real security detail in action.

Sûreté du Québec (SQ) officers were at the victory rally in Montreal to protect Marois, and they did their job. For those providing VIP security and those they protect, there are lessons to be learned from that incident on the night of Sept. 4, which took place after a gunman killed a man and wounded two other people outside the building where the Parti Québécois rally was underway.

For the rest of us, it's an opportunity to learn about how police protect politicians.

At the federal level, the RCMP provides security for politicians, and for visiting foreign dignitaries, diplomats and other officials.

The RCMP's Prime Minister's Protection Detail provides security for Stephen Harper and his family, both in Canada and abroad. It has 120 full-time employees, according to an RCMP document obtained by Radio-Canada earlier this year.

Provincial police forces like the SQ provide security for premiers and others designated by the province.

The size of the security package a police force provides is based on a threat and risk assessment that is constantly reviewed.

More security during election campaigns

During election campaigns, security is usually stepped up, given the huge increase in public events and tension. Opposition party leaders are normally offered protection during a campaign.

Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois is whisked off stage while delivering her victory speech in Montreal following the Sept. 4 election. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

"As part of its protective policing mandate, the RCMP constantly reviews and monitors security measures for the leaders of political parties with official party status in the House of Commons throughout a federal election campaign," RCMP Sgt. Julie Gagnon explained to CBC News.

The level of protection is based on the RCMP's ongoing threat assessment and is intelligence-led, Gagnon added.

In Quebec, it's likely security for Marois had been stepped up on election day, according to one of Canada's top VIP security experts, Ty Watts.

Watts provided security during much of his 32 years with the RCMP and still provides private VIP security through the company he co-owns, LTD and Associates. He also has a key role in training officers from all police forces in Canada that do personal protection.

The security details during the Quebec election would have been based on Quebec provincial police's threat assessment, but the normal practice would be to escalate the security level for a possible election winner, Watts explains.

Balancing security and accessibility

The day after the shooting at the PQ rally, longtime Liberal MP Denis Coderre spoke about the need for a balanced approach between security and the public's access to politicians and political events. He observed that politicians "have to be accessible, available to people," but "at the same time, you have to protect your institutions, so security is also an issue."

Guy Giorno, a former chief of staff for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, tells CBC News that Canada probably strikes the right balance between security and accessibility for politicians. (CBC)

Both Tim Murphy, chief of staff under Prime Minister Paul Martin, and Guy Giorno, a chief of staff for both Harper and Ontario Premier Mike Harris, told CBC News that Canada probably strikes the right balance.

Murphy is now with the McMillan law firm in Toronto and Giorno practises law at Fasken Martineau in Ottawa.

A chief of staff co-ordinates with the RCMP on security for a leader, but both Murphy and Giorno made it clear that security for federal politicians is the RCMP's responsibility.

"They have the expertise, they do the threat assessments," Murphy explains.

Giorno stresses the importance of the work by the officers on the security detail, and in his view, those assignments are now "for the best and most well-trained officers."

Increasing protection for the PM

Security for the prime minister is the RCMP's responsibility, Tim Murphy told CBC News. Murphy, then Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Paul Martin, watches the media scrums outside the House of Commons in Ottawa Feb. 12, 2004. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Under both Martin and Harper, the budget for security was set by the RCMP, not the Prime Minister's Office.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and Canada's involvement in Afghanistan led to heightened concern around security for Canadian politicians.

"The protective services provided to the PM have increased," according to the 2012 internal RCMP report on the Prime Minister's Protection Detail.

The report notes that the unit's budget shortfalls "have been increasing at an alarming rate." Spending went from $10.7 million in 2006-2007 to $18.5 million last fiscal year.

That's not something the PMO controls; the RCMP decides what's allocated, explains Murphy , who worked in the PMO from 2003 to 2006.

Security detail reviews any threats

The politician's staff will hand over to the security detail any threats that come in by email or other ways. Murphy says the RCMP has staff members who review the threats, and "they decide which ones are the ones to take seriously."

In 2007, when Ed Stelmach was Alberta premier, his office received threatening phone calls. The security detail reviewed the threat and decided to call in the RCMP. A man was arrested and charged with three counts of uttering threats and 28 firearms changes.

In 2008, Ronald Labelle was convicted of all charges and sentenced to four months in jail.

Some of the things "people see politicians do are not decisions that they make; they are decisions of the police," Giorno says. He gave the example of prime ministers and premiers not driving their cars. For the police responsible, it's a security issue and they want a driver who's trained in defensive driving and evasive manoeuvres. The police also decide on the vehicles to transport those politicians — usually armoured vehicles.

According to the RCMP, it "requests that all [the prime minister's and governor general's] air movements be on government aircraft" for security and safety reasons. Nevertheless, while campaigining during elections, Prime Minister Harper flew around the country on the Conservative's Air Canada charter.

Murphy says politicians often chafe against their security, that there are tensions but at the end of the day, they learn to leave the security decisions to the police.

Time to go

Tim Murphy tells the story of how Paul Martin did not have a security detail until he was chosen Liberal leader in 2003 and what happened two days after the convention when Martin and his staff were at an event.

Until then, the routine at events had been that "at some point, Martin would say he wants to go now to one of his staff." That person would gather all the staff and then they would leave.

This time, Martin told a member of his security detail that he wanted to go. They left immediately, for the airport, but two political staffers who were unaware of the new routine got left behind.

Which other government officials and politicians get a security detail, and the size of the detail, is usually a police decision. That decision is based on the threat assessment.

Politicians can and do make their own demands about their security, whether they want it in tight or want their space, and they may even sign off on it.

Watts explains that when his firm is providing security for the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party during elections —work they've done since 1995 — the standard practice when the campaign bus arrives is for security to get off the bus first and ensure everything is set with the ground crew before the leader gets off.

However, sometimes the leader would insist that it's their show and they would get off first, because that's the shot they wanted the news cameras to get. Then security would have to rely on the ground crew looking things over, and spotting the crowd and communicating with security onboard the bus.

Entering, exiting events a big security worry

Watts says that entering and exiting an event, especially a rally, is most worrisome for security.

"Arriving at an event, all of the sudden the adrenalin rises" with the crowd, the VIP and the security detail.

Watts explains that the security team needs to be trained not to look at the VIP, which is natural, but "to see all the other stuff that's going on" and to know what to spot. People wanting to shake hands or touch the VIP "makes the job of security that much more difficult."

Co-ordination between the security detail, the other police present and any private security is essential. Should an issue arise at the rally or any event, as happened during the Marois speech on Tuesday night, the security detail has to "take evasive action immediately" and get their VIP "out of there quickly, leaving the others behind to deal with the offences committed."

The security detail then puts the VIP "under a different type of protection." Watts says that means the politician's staff is now regarded the same as the general public.

Then, Watts says, security's mantra becomes, "get out of our way. We have a job to do and our job is to protect this person and get that person into a safe environment."