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Home > Market > Homeland Security

Reactive vs. Proactive: Does the Distinction Matter?

To illustrate the distinction between law enforcement and protection work, the words “reactive” and “proactive” often get loosely tossed around.

By The World Protection Group





Have you ever seen the video of Ronald Reagan being shot by John Hinckley?  Not one secret service agent drew his weapon until President Reagan was in his limousine on his way to the hospital.  Not one police officer was looking in the direction of Hinckley when he fired.  To illustrate the distinction between law enforcement and protection work, the words “reactive” and “proactive” often get loosely tossed around.  But there is a tangible distinction that is well-illustrated when this real-life example is used.


Law Enforcement Vs. Protection Work


In the private sector protection industry, there is a basic assumption that off-duty police officers are the most qualified candidates for protection agents.  This assumption, although seemingly logical, is not valid.  Law enforcement, by its nature, trains its officers to react to adverse incidents in the field.  Protection agents, if trained properly, are taught first to avoid them.  Virtually every practical training scenario run at law enforcement academies occurs as the result of a precipitating event, such as a bank robbery, an assault, a rape, and a kidnapping.  Cops are trained to react to these events -- investigate them -- and when finally able to confront the perpetrator, use only that force necessary to subdue him or her.  The perpetrator, if he/she so desires, must take the first action or “act” and the officer must then “react.”


Proactive Protection


This is why the uniformed officers surrounding President Reagan were more in tune with President Reagan’s presence than with Hinckley’s.  Having not been trained in providing protection, and lacking a clear understanding of proactive protective methods, the on-scene officers were either in awe of being in such close proximity to the President, or were focused inward in an effort to react to an attack.  The attack, of course came from outside the protective perimeter -- where it will always come from when a protective perimeter is employed.  This is where proactive training would have focused the police officers’ attention.  This protective perimeter (the outer ring) -- to which access is usually controlled -- along with counter-surveillance (the middle ring), and close protection (the inner ring), are called the “three rings of protection” and together compose the basis for the proactive philosophy used by trained protective agents.



What Saved the President’s Life?


But what about the secret service agents?  What did they do wrong and what did they do right?  In this case it is fair to say that they succeeded where the first twice failed.  To illustrate, Hinckley never penetrated the outer ring.  Fine, on the surface, but because neither secret service nor law enforcement counter-surveillance detected his presence, Hinckley was able to get six shots off from outside this perimeter before he was subdued.  The first failure -- the lack of detection from counter-surveillance was compounded by a second failure -- the failure to deploy the protective perimeter in a manner that would have made it exceedingly difficult for Hinckley to hit his target.  This perimeter, if wider by even a few yards, would have exponentially decreased the odds of Hinckley actually hitting President Reagan.  As a general rule, beyond ten yards most shooters must take careful aim using the sights on a handgun in order to hit a target.  Within ten yards, depending on the skill level and ever-varying degrees of intuitiveness, the use of sights is generally unnecessary and the probability of hitting a target without taking careful aim that much greater.

So what saved the President’s life?  The answer is the ‘”inner ring” of close protection, whose guiding tenet is to “cover & Evacuate” the protectee, thus removing him/her from the “theater of danger” and getting him/her to where he/she can be examined and treated for injuries.  This happened in the shortest time possible -- President Reagan was at The George Washington University Hospital in minutes -- and it can certainly be argued that this is what saved his life.

The assassination attempt on President Reagan’s life is a prime example of trained proactive protection clashing with untrained reactive behavior.  It further demonstrates that even when one or more aspects of a proactive philosophy fails -- the outer and middle rings in this case -- there are built-in safeguards -- the inner ring -- that can make up for the difference.


The World Protection Group, Inc. is a Los Angeles-based global provider of executive protection & threat management, uniformed protective service, security consulting and asset protection.  To learn more about WPG, please contact Craig Chamberlain, V.P. of Sales & Marketing at +1-310-550-4319 or by email at




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