Police Must Do Utmost to Fill Gaps in VIP Safety

We will soon mark one year since the fatal shooting of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during an election campaign event.

In April, someone else threw a homemade explosive device toward Prime Minister Fumio Kishida as he walked inside a facility to give a stump speech during a House of Representatives by-election. These reckless attacks committed during election campaigning, a linchpin of democracy, are unacceptable. This article delves into how to protect dignitaries.

On July 8, 2022, Tetsuya Yamagami, the suspect indicted on charges including murder, allegedly approached Abe from behind and fatally shot him when the former prime minister was giving a House of Councillors election stump speech in Saidaiji Higashimachi in Nara City.

According to the National Police Agency’s post-incident report, which examined the security and safety measures provided for Abe, an open space comprising a prefectural road and a vehicular turnaround to the south of his speech venue was set up in the street. Given that many pedestrians would be walking through the area, the report acknowledged “there were obvious threats to protection.”

However, the protection plan prepared by the Nara prefectural police did not consider the necessity for safeguards in the space south of the speech venue. Moreover, just before Abe’s speech, officers in his security detail assigned to guard Abe’s rear were displaced to be in front of him and to the sides, where most of the audience had gathered. As a result, a “gap in vigilance” emerged with no police officers standing guard behind Abe. The abovementioned items were the primary reasons the police could not prevent the shooting, the NPA report concluded.

Pointing to the fact that the NPA had not checked the Nara prefectural police’s plan to protect Abe beforehand, the report said the project would likely have changed if it had scrutinized its content in advance. In the wake of the shooting, the NPA began requiring all prefectural police departments to submit their plans to safeguard dignitaries to receive relevant guidance from the agency. The requirement aims to eliminate such “gaps in vigilance” with enhanced NPA involvement in dignitary protection.

Nevertheless, the attack aimed at Kishida occurred at the Saikazaki fishing port in Wakayama City on April 15, less than one year after the police ramped up protection for dignitaries. The incident made clear that the consolidation of security measures based on the lessons learned from the attack on Abe was insufficient to fill the “gap in vigilance.”

An NPA report, which scrutinized the attack on Kishida afterward, acknowledged that police could not repel it because the protection plan prepared for the prime minister’s stump speech had fallen short of including effective safety measures.

Kishida, fortunately, escaped unhurt in the Wakayama incident, as the homemade explosive device went off about 50 seconds after being thrown by the suspect, Ryuji Kimura, who mingled with the crowd that had gathered to listen to the prime minister. Kimura was arrested on-site on suspicion of forcibly obstructing business and other crimes. Investigators found that the device’s tube and other parts struck a warehouse about 40 meters away and a shed about 60 meters away from the explosion site. The device, therefore, seemed to have had considerable explosive force. A member of the security detail for the prime minister immediately kicked the device away. However, I still feel a chill when I imagine what could have happened if it had detonated directly after being thrown.

Even before the shooting of Abe, the NPA had involved itself in devising protection plans for each sitting prime minister — unlike other dignitaries — to a certain extent. The involvement is because coordination is essential between the Metropolitan Police Department, to which the round-the-clock security detail for the prime minister belongs, and the police forces of prefectures where the head of government plans to give stump speeches. Police leaders have indeed been shocked that despite heightening NPA involvement in protecting dignitaries after Abe’s murder, they could not thwart another similar assault.

As the attack on Kishida occurred not long after the shooting of Abe, the issue of how much distance we must keep between dignitaries and their audience has resurfaced, a matter of particular importance in protecting such figures.

In the shooting of Abe, Yamagami allegedly took out what looked like a firearm when he was about 10 meters away from the former prime minister. He reportedly fired his first shot at a distance of about 7 meters, and when he pulled the trigger for the second shot, he was about 5.3 meters away from Abe.

In the April attack in Wakayama, the suspect Kimura allegedly threw the explosive device toward Kishida from about 10 meters.

Both incidents involved close distances of about 10 meters, from which the assailants launched their attacks using metal weapons. In other words, we could have forestalled both incidents if the two armed perpetrators had been outside that area.

Earlier in my career, I was chief of the Security Division of the NPA, so I know police forces “envision every possible situation” when providing security for dignitaries. However, they learned from the shooting of Abe that weapons must never be allowed too close to dignitaries, so they should have prioritized that particular element when devising the guard and protection plan for Kishida in April.

Upgrade command skills

Some argue that inspecting everything inside each bag carried by audience members to confirm safety is time-consuming and unrealistic. Politicians must speak to audiences through stump speeches, which seems to be a critical element of democracy. Therefore, it is not unreasonable for politicians to hesitate to subject the people that gather to hear them to mandatory baggage checks.

But conducting security inspections as part of protecting dignitaries is not necessarily incompatible with stump campaigning.

We can ensure security and safety at a campaign site by asking each audience member to walk through a metal detector instead of conducting individual baggage checks. In the case of the attack against Kishida at the fishing port, the audience reportedly totaled about 200 people. Given that number, it would not have taken much time for everyone to go through a metal detector.

The Research Commission on Public Safety and Counter-Terrorism of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party held a meeting on April 26 to discuss the attack on Kishida. Commission Chairperson Takeshi Iwaya told reporters afterward: “It isn’t a matter for security authorities to handle alone. Those in the political domain should think together with them about [a solution].” I welcome his remarks as a positive statement from the political side about ensuring security and safety during election campaigning.

When I served as an executive secretary to then Prime Minister Abe and later as director of Cabinet Intelligence, I witnessed countless stump speeches given by prime ministers. I was there to observe audience reactions closely and get an overview of security precautions to ensure the safety of each speech session. Based on these experiences, I want to touch on critical points regarding protecting dignitaries.

To begin with, deploying security details for the sake of formality following the precedents should be avoided. Toshimitsu Motegi, secretary general of the LDP, delivered a stump speech at the exact Nara City location as Abe about two weeks earlier. In preparing its plans to provide security for Abe, the Nara prefectural police “simply and as a matter of form” emulated the protection plan used for Motegi, the NPA said in the abovementioned report.

Wherever a prime minister delivers stump speeches, you have a situation in which a large — though unspecified — number of people have ready access to the head of government. As such, the potential threats vary pretty widely. The perpetrators used homemade weapons in the attacks on Abe and Kishida. The two incidents had another common aspect — both were carried out by individuals not associated with specific terrorist organizations.

Individuals can conveniently get weapons made with a 3D printer if they wish. Those mentioned above make it imperative for police forces to envision various potential situations and become competent enough in flow-of-people management and security detail deployment to cope adequately with each situation.

In addition to security detail deployment, it is also essential to have contingency plans for the effective use of the materials and equipment at hand at each campaign site. Because in an emergency, the prime minister might have to shelter in a nearby vehicle, chief protection officers need to direct their security units about exactly where even political party vehicles should be parked and in what situations they should be used — on top of the positioning of police vehicles. It is also essential to meticulously conduct numerous rehearsals so that members of each security detail become adept at moving precisely, according to their chief’s instructions, at each site.

The NPA’s prior scrutiny of each dignitary protection plan is essential. That said, I still would like to emphasize that the nucleus of adequate security for dignitaries is the on-site expertise of the chief of each security detail.

The Nara prefectural police’s plan to safeguard Abe did not mention the responsibility and authority of the on-site security and guard operations chief. If a more definitive system for an on-site commitment had been in place, the security detail could have flexibly risen to the occasion and avoided the “gap in vigilance.” I know it’s too late, but I still regret the lack of such a system a year ago.

In operations to protect dignitaries, on-site commanding officers assume the core role of assessing and responding to any event in each function. The vital asset in such processes is the presence of commanding officers leading security details who “think on their feet and act accordingly.”

The police once established a brilliant reputation after performing life-risking, grinding duties to maintain public safety in the face of violent demonstrations and protests against the signing in 1960 of a security treaty between Japan and the U.S. and the extension in 1970 of the same pact as well as the construction of Narita Airport. I earnestly want Japan’s police forces to return to what they used to be — dedicated to “hands-on policing.”

Shigeru Kitamura

Kitamura joined the National Police Agency in 1980 after graduating from the University of Tokyo. He became director of Cabinet Intelligence in 2011 and served as secretary general of the National Security Secretariat from September 2019 to July 2021.

The original article in Japanese appeared in the July 2 issue of The Yomiuri Shimbun.