Police watch as protesters gather on August 24th, 2020 in Kenosha. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Days after unrest in Kenosha last year caught the world’s attention, Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth received an email with an offer. It came from Bill Tallen, executive vice president of training for the private security company Distributed Security Inc. (DSI). “As a retired federal LEO,” Tallen wrote on Aug. 31, 2020, “I sympathize 100% with your response to the request for deputization of armed citizens during the current civil unrest. However, I would like to suggest an approach that is more realistic and defensible, with advantages both for your Department and the private sector in your county.”
Tallen was referring to comments Beth made on CNN when he rejected the idea of deputizing armed civilians. “Oh hell no,” Beth declared, “what happened last night — and I think Chief Miskinis is going to talk about it, is probably the perfect reason why I wouldn’t. Once I deputize somebody, they fall under the constitution of the State of Wisconsin. They fall under the county of Kenosha, they fall under my guidance. They have to follow my policies, they have to follow my supervisors, they are a liability to me, and the county, and the State of Wisconsin.”
The shooting allegedly involving then 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse was still fresh in Beth’s mind. An Illinois resident, Rittenhouse was among hundreds of self-styled militia members mobilized by a Facebook group calling itself the Kenosha Guard. In the hours prior to the shooting, police in an armored vehicle gave Rittenhouse’s group water and thanked them for coming to town. Internal messages sent between various law enforcement agencies during those chaotic nights showed how police regarded the armed groups as friendly, and said they were there to protect property. Many questions remain today about what police did and did not know about the armed groups, and how closely they may have cooperated with them during Kenosha’s unrest.
In his email to Beth, Tallen said DSI “offers training and consultation for individuals and management personnel of enterprises that wish to both enhance and take responsibility for their own security. We provide in-depth training and assistance in organization and infrastructure development for in-house (vs. contracted) armed security, for any enterprise or institution, with the fundamental requirement that such efforts be undertaken with the full knowledge and concurrence of local law enforcement, and entirely within the boundaries of applicable statutes.”
Tallen stated, “This is not intended as a pathway to deputization, but only as a security solution for enterprises seeking to protect life and property in an environment where political, budgetary, and/or manpower constraints may limit the capabilities and extend the average response time of law enforcement, and leave private entities exposed to evolving threats.” Jack Aubrey, a spokesperson for DSI, told Wisconsin Examiner that Beth never responded to Tallen’s email. Nor has DSI been in contact with any other branches of Kenosha city or county government, the company spokesman stated.
On its website, DSI describes itself as a “private security company. We train, advise, and operate proprietary teams to actively defend enterprise life and property.” Using military lingo, the company presentation state they create bases and “operate private security forces capable of defending immediate community assets” from “mob action” functioning as an “armed security cadre.”
Aubrey told Wisconsin Examiner that the company did not have any personnel active in Kenosha during the unrest. “No,” he said, “we do not engage in any activities that are not sponsored by an existing client and approved by local law enforcement.” Aubrey stated that DSI does not “offer rent-a-guard or standard security guard services. We do offer contract security services for established clients for whom all licenses and local law enforcement approvals have been received.” He added, however, that, “contract security services are retainer-based with mobilization fees paid as utilized. All clients must be on a retainer and must have completed our preliminary on-site assessment prior to deploying a team.”
DSI advocates for establishing networks of “distributed security,” wherein individuals or groups of individuals can be trained to defend specific buildings or neighborhoods during unstable times. Through DSI, those individuals can even be trained at a SWAT-level competency. “Every military special operator begins as an untrained civilian,” Tallen said in a video posted to DSI’s YouTube channel.
In that video, Tallen describes several “myths” in the context of unrest or disorder. Those include myth No. 1, “the cops will protect you,” myth No. 2, “a retired cop (security guard) will protect you,” myth No. 3, “technology will protect you,” myth No. 4, “A gun-free zone will protect you” and myth No. 5 “civilians can’t be trained to confront violence.” Tallen said during the webinar video, “the enterprise doesn’t need police officers. It only needs people capable of protecting innocent life and property, on the scene and in the moment that violence presents itself. Civilians are very easily trained in that narrow skill set.”
Posted on June 1, 2020, the video was uploaded just days after protesters around the world took to the streets in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Tallen described the protests at that time as a “wave over the last two weeks now of nationwide civil disorder.” He added that the protests and unrest were fueled by, “a whole stew of divisive, polarizing political and race-based movements,” as well as economic instability from COVID and other factors. “Protests, many of them violent, have occurred so far in 140 cities.” Tallen said that violence breaks out from otherwise peaceful protests because “all it takes is one person acting out.”
Looking back over the last year, studies now suggest that some 96% of Black Lives Matter protests were peaceful. “DSI is not concerned with peaceful protests by any group or cause,” Aubrey told Wisconsin Examiner. In Kenosha, damages in the city topped $50 million, the Kenosha News reported. In September 2020, the Trump Administration’s Department of Justice allocated $41 million in public safety grants to Wisconsin.
“We are concerned with civil unrest or criminal activities that result in violent threats to life and property. Such threats, which have become more frequent in many locales around the country in the last 18 months, have high consequences for those affected.”
Kenosha Guard vs DSI
The company highlighted several ways in which its approach could have changed what happened in Kenosha. First, DSI stresses that an armed security force must fully analyze any situation including threat assessments, area studies or surveys, inventory of outside assets like police or EMS, as well as response times. “Understand the law,” said Aubrey, “and its constraints (what you must do) and restraints (what you cannot do). Take a realistic look at the political, social, and legal environment.” He stressed that, “this kind of information collection can’t be done overnight.”
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Additionally, a strong relationship must be built between local or even federal law enforcement, and the security group. “If you can’t get law enforcement concurrence and support for your efforts, you should consider probably voting with your feet — relocating — rather than trying to defend under conditions that will put you at odds with local government and the legal system.”
DSI stresses that security networks must be well organized, “so you don’t face a crisis with a last-minute, pick-up crew,” said Aubrey. “Recruit volunteers from within the enterprise, institution, or community and vet them carefully. Neighbors and friends pitching in on the spur of the moment might be better than nothing — but it’s much worse than what can be accomplished with the prior planning, organization and preparation.” Aubrey stressed that “important elements” like understanding teamwork to avoid individuals aren’t facing threats alone are critical. “That alone could have changed the outcomes in Kenosha,” said Aubrey.
Security networks envisioned by DSI also are meant to have clear discipline through chain of command, communication capabilities and understanding use-of-force. “Make sure everyone involved clearly understands their rights and responsibilities under the law,” said Aubrey, “to include the crucial distinction between defensive actions wholly within private property versus engaging in melees, or projecting force, into public areas.” Aubrey points to these as some of the things DSI advocates for, which were “absent (or inadequate) in Kenosha,” he told Wisconsin Examiner.
Aubrey emphasized that DSI offers “well-developed models” for how businesses, churches, schools and others can be defended during civil unrest. “In Kenosha August 2020, the response of armed citizens appears to have occurred in the midst of the crisis, improvised on the spur of the moment, on an ad hoc basis with minimal or no prior planning, coordination or training. This is not a formula for success.”
Nevertheless in its June 2020 video, Tallen and other members of DSI pointed to examples of citizens taking security into their own hands during times of crisis. One example offered was the 1992 unrest in Los Angeles, during which residents of a largely Asian American neighborhood defended businesses with rifles from rooftops. Tallen pointed to this as “an iconic example” of armed citizens mobilizing to protect property “when law enforcement response was absolutely unavailable to them.”
When militias go rogue
One obvious concern about the model DSI proposes is vetting and oversight of armed groups: Who is ultimately responsible for the groups when or if things go wrong? DSI says it provides the tools and training to help establish a network, but largely it’s up to the people involved in that network to formulate their own outfit. At 35 minutes and 56 seconds into the company’s webinar one speaker states, “If you find yourself at odds with local law enforcement, which I know some of you are at this point, then you’re going to have a decision to make. But I will emphasize that all of our programs are implemented only with the approval of local law enforcement.”
Aubrey told Wisconsin Examiner that “local law enforcement will be involved from the start in DSI’s security models.” If a group were to act outside the constraints of the law, “they would be subject to the possibility of criminal charges and/or civil action,” said Aubrey. “They will be far better monitored and vetted than the groups that generate disruptive protests that sometimes develop into riots and mob action.” Aubrey added that, “if law enforcement agencies were universally capable of securing their communities against riot and mayhem, these private initiatives would not be necessary. When law enforcement capabilities and response are not adequate, some will find it necessary to act on their own initiative to protect themselves. DSI offers models that would contain and control that response.”
Many groups describing themselves as organized, trained, militia-style collectives descended on Kenosha during protests in the city. At times, some of those individuals could be seen fully clad in tactical gear, and were easily confused with National Guard troops. Half an hour before Rittenhouse fired his first shots, authorities in Kenosha texted one another about “armed counter-protesters” slashing people’s tires. Many Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha the night of the shooting recalled being pursued by pickup trucks filled with armed people.
“These events, as well as the deployment of thousands of National Guard troops from Wisconsin and other states and tens of millions of dollars of property damage, were consequences of local law enforcement’s inability to control the events and protect their community,” said Aubrey. “In defense of Sheriff Beth, there are few jurisdictions prepared to handle incidents of this magnitude. Under the Distributed Security model, local residents and enterprises are properly trained to protect themselves in these conditions, and very importantly, potential protestors understand that local residents, under control of local law enforcement, will protect their life and property in a competent, controlled and coordinated manner. This is usually a sufficient deterrent.”
As Wisconsinites processed the events in Kenosha, similar groups emerged in Wauwatosa. Militia members were arrested in an apparent plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and bring her back to Wisconsin for an unofficial “trial.” The group, which called itself Wolverine Watchmen, was infiltrated by FBI informants and the plot was derailed. The surge of armed right-wing violence under the Trump Administration culminated on Jan. 6, when a crowd of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol to halt the certification of election results and the transfer of power from Trump to President Joe Biden.
Hearings into the events at the Capitol by elected officials also focused on the question of how many current and former police and military personnel participated in what was called an attempted insurrection. According to NPR, nearly one in five defendants arrested after the Jan. 6 unrest had a military record. Other investigations by ProPublica have shown an interest among right-wing extremist groups to use military or police training to gain the needed experience to commit similar acts.
Security networks like those DSI proposes would have to deal with the challenge of vetting potential extremists. “DSI does not support or encourage extremist ideologies or any form of lawless violence,” said Aubrey. “It supports enterprises and communities defending themselves against lawless violence through legal means, within their rights and in cooperation with local law enforcement.”
DSI would not comment on whether it has successfully implemented this sort of model anywhere in the country. The Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department would not respond to requests for comment. Tallen’s email was obtained by Wisconsin Examiner via open records requests to the Kenosha County Sheriffs Department. Aubrey stressed that DSI’s purpose is providing security for individuals, enterprises and institutions.
“We offer the most comprehensive training curriculum and the highest standards in the industry, relative to what it takes to be a safe and effective gun owner,” said Aubrey. He added that, “every ward in the city of Chicago, or in any jurisdiction challenged by violence to which local authorities cannot respond to or control effectively, would benefit from a distributed security model.”
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