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We conduct active research on security risks, says MU vice-rector Polčák

After the tragic shooting at the Faculty of Arts of Charles University in Prague, the issue of security at universities became a hotly debated topic. We spoke to Radim Polčák, MU Vice-Rector for Development, Legal and Information Technologies, about the December events and security measures at Masaryk University.

Radim Polčák, MU Vice-Rector for Development, Legal and Information Technologies.

The Presidium of the Czech Rectors’ Conference held a commemorative meeting with the laying of flowers and the lighting of candles in front of Karolinum on the second day after the tragic event. It was mainly to show the sympathy of other Czech universities. What was it like on the spot?

On Thursday, while the tragedy was still unfolding, I was in contact with some friends from the management of Charles University and its Faculty of Arts, and on Friday I went to Prague. It is hard for me to describe the atmosphere there. The whole thing was and still is something so terrible that I will never forget it. I admire my colleagues at Charles University because, in a state of total individual and institutional shock, they had to deal with many new organisational and technical issues at the operational level. Some "experts" in the media began to attract attention by asking how it was possible that the building of the Faculty of Arts did not have security frames and body searches like those in courts or airports, which to me is a manifestation of utter insolence and ignorance.

What do you think about the wave of solidarity that the tragic attack at Charles University has triggered?

Showing solidarity and offering material help is probably the only thing that can be done in such a situation. There are not many ways to help the victims or the university as an institution. The dead cannot be brought back, nor can the injuries and traumas of the survivors be undone. However, charitable collections and other fundraising activities, including our University's appeal for donations, have shown that our society is not insensitive to such tragic events. The nominal value of the contributions and donations was impressive, but the number of people who decided to show their participation in this way, even if it was just a few hundred kronor, was perhaps even more important.

What security measures did MU take after the attack, and how does our crisis management and communication system work?

We had information from the security services that the attack was isolated, so there was no need to take immediate emergency action. However, if the situation had required it, we would have met immediately with the emergency board, taken steps to ensure the safety of buildings and people, informed our university community, and established contact points for the police and possibly the emergency services. The crisis management system at MU is generally based on two bodies - the Emergency Board and the Emergency Committee. The Emergency Board is a broader body used to deal with complex and systemic issues while the Emergency Committee has a more limited membership and can therefore respond quickly to immediate and operational needs.

How would information reach students in such cases?

The ideal tool for immediate mass communication with students is the university email. Experience has shown that in emergencies, other forms of individual and mass communication, including various messengers and social media, will also spread information immediately. This can be useful for immediately alerting someone who is not on email that something bad is happening. At the same time, however, there is a need for a reliable and easy-to-use universal source of information: university email.

How comprehensive are the crisis procedures? Is there room to make them more effective? What steps are planned for the coming weeks?

We originally introduced the crisis management system in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. From an organisational point of view, it is only a temporary replacement of an otherwise rather complex system of university management and administration with less sophisticated but more flexible processes. This will be complemented by emergency communication tools for our university community, other institutions and the public. The specific staffing of crisis management bodies and the choice of organisational and technical tools for dealing with emergencies will always depend on the nature of the event and, in some cases, on the immediate availability of individuals. I do not believe that it will be necessary to fundamentally change the crisis management system after the recent tragedy. It is possible that, following recommendations from the police and other law enforcement agencies, we will consider expanding the emergency communication tools. As for concrete steps to increase the University's resilience to emergencies such as the Prague attack, these will focus on basic training, similar to what we are currently doing for fire safety. Based on the recommendations of the police experts, we will also make some individual modifications to our buildings and improve their documentation to make it as easy as possible for local people and the police to respond immediately.

Other than the police and the Ministry of Education, with whom is MU currently in contact regarding risk reduction?

This will always depend on the nature of the risks. It could be intelligence services, emergency services, regional or local authorities, or health or social services. From my own experience, I would say that cooperation not only at the institutional level but also at the individual level is quite effective. A number of our academic staff are actively researching different types of security risks and therefore have contacts with the authorities and institutions I have mentioned. Some experts also work for us externally in teaching or research. After the attack in Prague, my first choice for guidance on the security situation were colleagues in the security forces whom I know from research collaborations.

In your opinion, should the tragic event lead to a change in the legislation governing the possession of firearms?

I am not an expert on gun legislation, but the fact is that the number of guns among civilians in our country is high. Only Finland in Europe has a higher number of weapons per capita. However, the situation there is completely different, partly because of the Finnish hunting culture and, above all, because of the country’s compulsory military service and national defence doctrine. Our situation does not even bear comparison with the USA, where civil gun ownership is part of the political culture and constitutional tradition. Our only tradition is in the manufacture of weapons and the strength of the arms industry. My personal view is that our gun legislation should be inherently restrictive and should, therefore, make the acquisition of a gun more difficult, not easier. In addition to the currently loose firearms possession rules, I consider the lack of more effective analytical and forensic information tools for the police and security forces to be a problem. Suppose a person is interested in owning a firearm. In that case, he or she should accept lesser privacy protection in relation to the law enforcement or intelligence services compared to an unarmed citizen.

Why is openness so important for academia, and why can't universities have similar systems to those used in courts or airports?

The reasons for the futility of such security checks are both philosophical and practical. In a university setting, we could debate the natural tension between free thought and moral authority. But the question of openness or closure is beyond debate; any form of closure is in direct conflict with the fundamental purpose of the university in all its roles. While authority must have the final say in a university, it must not lead to any form of permanent or systemic closure, whether physical or social. The kind of security arrangements that involve permanent walk-through metal detectors and body searches can only be effectively implemented in buildings with a strictly limited number of entrances, such as a high-rise building with a small footprint, or in buildings with a secure outer perimeter. Our buildings, where many people are constantly going in and out through a large number of entrances, cannot be secured in this way. And even if we placed such detectors at each of the hundreds of entrances to our buildings and posted two armed guards at each point – which is the bare minimum needed to stop a single determined gunman – it would not protect the people standing in line at the entrance and elsewhere, not to mention the fact that even an armed guard may not be able to effectively stop a shooter if caught by surprised on a normal day. The airport is a good example of this reality. Security checks are designed to protect people on planes, but they are not a universal tool to protect passengers and employees. Neither security frames nor armed guards, of which airports have by far the most, prevented a bombing in Brussels that killed over 30 people in 2016.

What is the experience of public institutions abroad?

These clearly show that some measures to increase resilience make sense, can reduce the scale and impact of an attack and increase the effectiveness of security forces. Habits, information and the ability to lock the door quickly, to put it simply, play a key role. But the only effective tools to prevent such tragedies altogether are the analysis and intervention capabilities of the police and intelligence services.