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Illustration by Dan Page

Leaning into Public–Private Partnerships to Create Cultures of Safety

Apeaceful protest began in Santa Monica, California, at 1:15 p.m. on Sunday, 31 May 2020, to decry the death of George Floyd. By 2:00 p.m., storefronts along the famous Santa Monica boardwalk were smashed, looters were swarming stores ranging from a local barber shop to a Louis Vuitton boutique, and fires were set. Most looters pulled up and left in cars. They used social media to evade law enforcement, who would later report that nearly 95 percent of those arrested were from outside the community. In total, the city estimated that 250 businesses suffered $11.5 million in exterior damage alone.

Four years earlier, an office water cooler discussion at a financial services firm regarding gender-neutral bathrooms became a heated disagreement about gender identity that engaged a growing number of the firm’s employees. A passing coworker told the group to “take it outside.” A small number did so, and their conflict attracted people seated outdoors at a nearby café who joined in the debate. The group soon blocked the sidewalk and, in their increasing agitation, unintentionally shoved a woman pushing an infant in a stroller into the street. The woman fell, toppling the stroller in the process. The infant suffered minor scrapes. The woman fractured a wrist.

In the Santa Monica incident, conflict on the streets smashed into local businesses faster than law enforcement could contain it. In the sidewalk event, a conflict that began within a workplace’s four walls spilled onto the streets and was fueled by the tinder of the immediate environment—resulting in harm to an innocent bystander.

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In each incident, echoes of the new wave of violence and conflict in the United States and globally reverberate. Passionately held opinions and beliefs coupled with—and amplified by—the painful and very real uncertainties that have accompanied health anxiety, economic anxiety, and historic disparities are being expressed in disruptive and destructive ways.

Developing and maintaining a culture of safety in light of such pervasive conflict and violence requires expansive thinking around the ways in which we partner with our workforces, communities, and public-sector allies.

Although extreme disagreement is more likely to result in conflict than violence, the latter has reached record levels. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Threat Assessment, published in October 2020, indicated that 2019 was the most lethal year for domestic violent extremism in the United States since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. (The department had not yet completed its analysis of 2020 data at the time of the report’s publication.) The FBI reported that there were at least 51 reported hate crime killings in the United States in 2019, the highest number since the Bureau began tracking hate crimes.

The upward trend in U.S. extremist violence is consistent with that occurring worldwide. The United Nations notes that while both war and terrorism deaths are down globally, deaths caused by extremist groups have surged.

The reports do not capture disagreements that do not result in violence but represent the intractable differences of opinion—in relation to risk tolerance, political affiliations, and social injustice—on which conflict thrives, and which pose significant workplace safety risks.

The financial losses associated with acts of conflict and violence pose an additional challenge, heightening the already severe economic impact that COVID-19 has had on many economies.

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Traditionally, public–private partnerships (PPPs) have been defined as collaborations between one or more government agencies and private corporations which join to achieve a set of goals or objectives.

The typical PPP generally assumes one of two structures: the design-bid-build model through which a private contractor provides the expertise, investment, and personnel to deliver a good or service needed by a public entity and for which returns are generated over time; and the bidirectional intelligence-sharing model, typically used to detect, prevent, or respond to crime or terrorism.

The design-bid-build approach has been meaningfully operationalized in different contexts since the founding of governments, but grew particularly prevalent during World War II when PPPs were leveraged to support military supply needs. One of the most notable was a 1941 partnership between the newly established U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), universities, and technology creators throughout the United States. Organizations joined to develop a variety of resources, including the atomic weapons and radar that ultimately supported the war’s end. Since then, PPPs continue to support defense, infrastructure, technology, and disaster response.

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In 2010, for example, the Government of Rwanda (GoR) entered into a PPP to provide much-needed water access to its growing population. GoR partnered with the multinational infrastructure investment fund DevCo and the Water and Sanitation Corporation to achieve the project’s aims.

The fusion centers developed in the United States following the 9/11 terrorist attacks exemplify intelligence-sharing PPPs. More than 30 such centers—representing alliances between the U.S. federal government, U.S. states, large urban centers, tribal and territorial partners, and private sector security—have opened nationwide. According to a 2018 National Network of Fusion Centers assessment, U.S. fusion centers provided direct support before, during, or immediately after more than 5,000 pre-planned community events and were directly involved in response to 20 of the 24 active shooter incidents in 2018.

Governments also routinely partner with the communication and technology sectors, particularly those related to social media, which are increasingly sources of data that can signal movement toward radicalization or violence.

A thematic intractable or highly probable threat has also been the catalyst for PPP establishment.

In 2019, Palm Beach County, Florida, joined with seven jurisdictions, the CLEO Institute, and others to identify and assess the risks posed to the region by climate change. The goal of the partnership is to develop and prioritize mitigation strategies that improve preparedness for probable natural disasters in the region.

The COVID-19 pandemic response also catalyzed the establishment of PPPs. In one, the U.S. National Institutes of Health partnered with leading biopharmaceutical companies, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the European Medicines Agency to prioritize vaccine candidates, streamline clinical trials, and coordinate regulatory processes. The result has been the historically rapid development of multiple COVID-19 vaccines. At the conclusion of 2020, additional PPPs between the U.S. government, major U.S. airlines, trucking and freight companies, and a German refrigerator manufacturer were created to coordinate the vaccine’s distribution in the United States.

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In the late 1960s, a spike in U.S. crime resulted in a partnership between The National Sheriffs’ Association and private citizens. In 1972, this collaboration culminated in the founding of the first Neighborhood Watch association. Neighborhood Watch groups offer a forum for information sharing between private citizens and law enforcement. These groups also serve as hubs for safety training and—post-9/11—emergency preparedness training.

The Neighborhood Watch model has been adopted in countries throughout the world. In 2014, for example, The European Neighbourhood Watch Association was founded to serve as an umbrella for both private citizens and law enforcement, as well as for national government partners and private organizations dedicated to safety training, crime prevention, and safety equipment manufacturing.

Applying a similar approach in a commercial setting, the Alice Springs Hospital in Australia developed a watch program in and around its facility after experiencing an increase in thefts and other illicit activity that was beyond the security force’s typical response capacity.

The program’s goal is to “empower individuals to take some ownership of the security needs of their environment,” according to Scholars for Justice. Security divided the hospital into zones and established a coordinator for each, charging coordinators to communicate with each other and security if they detect suspicious activity. The resulting declines in criminal activity were accompanied by a reported increase in employee experience of empowerment and safety.

More recently, an informal network of community-based partnerships has sprung up through the mobile apps associated with many home security cameras, as well as through blogs like Nextdoor, to which law enforcement agencies frequently subscribe and through which community members post information about issues ranging from package thefts to arson. The veracity and utility of the reports will clearly vary, but the overall content can provide valuable information on the informal culture of the community’s most engaged members.

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Several contemporary factors are colliding to make expanding PPPs particularly worthwhile. First, conflict and violence are being accelerated by economic disparity, health inequality, risk tolerance divides, racial injustice, partisan vitriol, conspiracy theories, and disinformation campaigns. The depth and breadth of current conflict suggests that a broader response is needed.

Second, most experts agree that the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally altered the way in which many enterprises will operate in the future. Many sectors will replace commuter cultures with hybrid or telecommute work environments. More distributed workforces pose different security challenges than those within four walls. Remote employees will become more important to threat detection, and they will need to have a higher level of safety literacy to meaningfully support a secure workplace environment.

Third, global economic recovery—particularly of the small and mid-size enterprises that have been hardest hit during the pandemic—is in everyone’s best interest. PPPs provide resource support in the form of shared expertise and potentially through cost savings, provision of services, and business opportunities.

In addition to these direct benefits, partnerships that explicitly seek to achieve collateral benefits—such as supporting the economic recovery of partners and local businesses—indirectly benefit from the increased likelihood of reciprocity during crises. Research consistently validates what is intuitively obvious: positive relationships increase the likelihood that we will assist others when needed, even in highly individualistic societies like the United States.

These macro-environmental factors require security efforts that are fluid and capable of both early detection and rapid response. Lessons learned from the April 2015 protests in Baltimore, Maryland, demonstrate this crucial benefit. When peaceful demonstrations held in response to the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody turned suddenly violent, the four major hospitals in the area needed an immediate way to protect employees traveling to and from their campuses. After the first of several days of rioting, looting, and fires—during which employees had their cars pelted with debris or blocked when traveling to their shifts—the hospitals coordinated with the city to track hotspots and provide data to employees that allowed them to navigate around potentially dangerous routes.

Expanding public–private partnerships can serve as the force multiplier that fortifies enterprises against contemporary threats, particularly if the PPPs employ a network of the various models that have historically been used independently.

For example, by emulating the Alice Springs Hospital model, an enterprise can expand its security assets by training safety coordinators—both on-site and virtually—on the various behavioral indicators associated with potentially violent behavior. As part of their responsibilities, these coordinators can agree to join or establish neighborhood watches in their local communities, in which they can share safety best practices and collect risk information. They can bring this knowledge back to the enterprise for discussion and, when appropriate, adoption and response. Any businesses in the neighborhood will likewise benefit from the sharing of information and associated increased safety practices.

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By emulating the Palm Beach effort, the enterprise can identify partners in the region to participate in a hazard vulnerability and mitigation assessment for localized threats. Identified needs can be sourced to experts and equipment manufacturer partners.

Engaging with an established fusion center or working with entities that can facilitate partnerships with law enforcement, such as the ASIS International Law Enforcement Liaison Community and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Private Sector Liaison Committee, creates important avenues for public–private information sharing, early alerts to potential security concerns, and mobilization of rapid response, when required.

Based upon several risk analyses, the establishment of such partnerships will be particularly beneficial in the upcoming years. The Verisk Maplecroft Civil Unrest Index, for example, suggests that 75 countries—nearly half in Europe and the Americas—will experience an increase in protests by late 2022.

Food scarcity, economic downtowns, job losses, and frustrations with governmental institutions are expected to continue fueling a steady wave of demonstrations. Establishing a network of partners in advance provides fortification against the violence and destruction that can result if protests accelerate to riots.

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As with any public–private partnership, a networked PPP is strengthened by foundational architecting.

Focus. The goal of the partnership should be clear, shared, and aligned with the mission of the enterprise. To be meaningful, it should also address areas of significant risk.

Information. The information to be collected and shared by the partners—and their constituents—should be articulated in advance. Although limited information sharing will obviously compromise any partnership, the sharing of useless information is equally eroding because it wastes valuable time.

Communication. A reasonable plan for both ongoing and emergency communication should be developed.

Outcome measurement. A series of concrete goals for the partnership (“Improve employee morale by 25 percent over one year,” or “Increase respective workforce safety literacy, as evidenced by demonstrated knowledge of workplace violence prevention protocols, by 15 percent year over year.”) should be established to track meaningful progress and accomplishment.

Seek efficiencies. To maximize the utility of the partnership, it is optimal to have a shared dedication to seeking intersections in which resources can be pooled and shared. Workforce safety development and training is one obvious opportunity, but remember opportunities that move beyond traditional security roles.

If a partnership includes a restaurant, for example, offering employee discounts for partner members can facilitate personal relationships that expand situational awareness, as well as provide an economic benefit to participants. Any partnership that includes a wellness-dedicated partner—a gym or yoga studio, for example—might likewise engage. Though indirect, contributions to employee well-being lower stress levels and create a safer work environment. And by increasing members’ perceived direct value from the program, the partnership increases buy-in and likely longevity.

Leverage funding. Although predominantly leveraged for prevention, and therefore for loss mitigation, PPPs can also be a source of funding, depending upon the nature of the partners. Typically funded through government agencies—particularly in traditional design-bid-build partnerships—PPP resources may be available through a nonprofit organization with access to donor or grant funding, or with a university engaged in a government-funded research initiative. Depending upon the nature of the partnership, cost savings may also be available through health and liability insurance carriers.

By leaning on the success of the current generation of PPP models and combining elements from each into a new and more diversified network approach, security leaders can expand the breadth and depth of their safety reach and meet the complex challenges that the current conflict climate presents—and that will likely pose additional near-term challenges as social engagement approaches pre-pandemic levels.

Read about a partnership in action in this online-exclusive case study. 

Diana M. Concannon is associate provost for strategic initiatives and partnerships at Alliant International University, where she also serves as dean of the California School of Forensic Studies. She is a forensic psychologist and maintains a threat assessment and management consultancy. She is author of Kidnapping: An Investigator’s Guide and Neurocriminology: Forensic and Legal Applications, Public Policy Implications. Concannon is the co-vice chair of the ASIS International Extremism and Political Instability Community.

Michael Center is the United Nations security adviser to Belgium, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Malta, Monaco, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. His experience is focused on security risk management in high-risk, complex humanitarian and conflict environments. Center serves as a liaison to strengthen analysis and crisis management preparedness for United Nations programs. Center is the chair of the ASIS International Extremism and Political Instability Community.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and are not reflective of their organizations.

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