Staying safe in public places

Terrorism experts join News4Jax to check Northeast Florida hot spots

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Since Sept. 11, 2001 there have been concerns over future attacks from terrorists tied to the Middle East, but there are also concerns now with domestic terrorism. 

The Oct. 1 Las Vegas mass shooting, the gunman at the Fort Lauderdale airport in January, the Pulse Shooting in Orlando last year, and the Charleston Church shooting the year before that -- all acts of deadly violence at places considered soft targets.

When pyrotechnics set off the fire alarm two weeks ago inside Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena during the Florida Georgia Line concert, for some, their initial thoughts were of a violent attack. 

International security expert Leticia Monteagudo told News4Jax this is the new reality we live in.

Monteagudo is based in South Florida and has 25 years of experience conducting security risk assessments at locations around the world. We invited her to Jacksonville to take a look around Northeast Florida for soft targets to help us show you ways to better protect your family.

Jacksonville International Airport

Monteagudo's specialty is aviation and she pointed out positives at Jacksonville International Airport including K-9s patrolling the grounds and heavily armed law enforcement in plain view. 

One sight Monteagudo didn't like however were the long lines forming in public access areas like the ticket counters.

"Check in from home. Go online and check it from home," she advised. "Because when you check in from home you don't really have to have a lot of time in the public area, called the terminal."

Those public areas, all the places you can go without having to be checked by security, are for anyone -- passengers or not.

It's also an area where Monteagudo noted people not paying attention to what was going on around them.

"People are usually on their phone, they're reading a text, they're into their social media, and this is the time that you really should be alert," she warned.

Seawalk Pavilion 

No one was prepared for the horror in Las Vegas Oct. 1 when Stephen Paddock opened fire on the crowd enjoying an outdoor country music festival. 

It's an outdoor area like so many that can be found around Northeast Florida. One of them is the Seawalk Pavilion in Jacksonville Beach -- another place we took Monteagudo.

"You have a hotel, and you have windows that are actually facing directly to the amphitheater," she said. "You have thousands of people coming here for a concert. Who's to say that something like that cannot happen here?"

She was happy to find a camera positioned high above the location, as well as barriers that keep vehicles out of the area where people would gather for a concert or event. She also noted the elevated post from which police can watch over a crowd saying they are all great security precautions by police and event promoters.

So, Monteagudo suggested that people planning to go to outdoor venues like the Seawalk Pavilion prepare first.

"Always have a backup plan," she said. "If something were to happen here, I'd probably want to be close to an area that I can run out, take shelter, if I'm with my family or kids."

That safe place in this location she said would be either the beach or the street.

Safety in churches

Having a plan on where you would run or seek shelter is important.  But what if there was nowhere to go?

In 2015, Dylan Roof murdered nine congregants after opening fire inside a Charleston, South Carolina church during a Bible Study session. Monteagudo said that deadly shooting should have sparked conversations about security plans among local congregations.

We traveled to Clay County to find out what makes a church a soft target.

"It's a soft target because no one expects to go to church and not come out," she said.

Monteagudo showed us how easy it is to find instructions on Islamic propaganda websites, telling readers where and how to create harm in places -- including churches.

"One of the things that I would look at is, are there cameras? Is there a third-party company that has been contracted for security that is actually in the external side of the structure taking a look at who comes in and who comes out?" 

St. Johns Town Center

We drove through the popular St. Johns Town Center with Monteagudo, and she says with the holiday shopping season approaching, this is a safer place to be.

"It's unlikely to happen here," she said about an act of terrorism based on the layout. "Spread out is good because it's not localized where you don't have someone coming into a mall that is enclosed."

"When a terrorist commits an act, it's seconds to minutes, that's all they have," she said. "They want to be able to take the path of least resistance of a soft target where they're not probably watched by anyone coming into a mall. How many people come in into an indoor mall?"

Safety in schools

Another entity where people are constantly coming in and out are schools. So how do we protect the most innocent among us?

News4Jax Crime and Safety Analyst Gil Smith joined Monteagudo to discuss the safety of our children.

"Safety and security is top of mind. Especially when it comes to schools, said Monteagudo. "And one of the things that the school system nationally should start thinking of is the deployment and installation of more metal detectors. In every high school. And the walk-through metal detector is able to detect metal, whether it's a knife, whether it's a gun."

"I think the metal detectors is a good idea because so far this school year in Duval County there have been quite a few guns that were found in schools," added Smith. "So that will be a good idea. However, you also have to look at the cost."

Monteagudo showed us a less expensive idea to protect our children -- a thin, bulletproof panel that goes into a child's backpack. The one like she showed us costs about $100, but you can find others online for less.

WATCH: Protecting children at school

"Students and parents can think about taking a look in purchasing what I travel with all the time now. My kids do as well in their backpack," Monteagudo said about the panel. "It's a lightweight, bulletproof pad. It's made out of carbon fiber. It's actually being sold right now to the military and government. This goes directly into your backpack as you saw there, and students can carry it with them. If there is any active shooting or shootings -- not only in schools, when you go out -- they can actually use that to protect themselves. A bullet will not be able to penetrate this."

"I think this is a good idea,"Smith said. "And, if they did have metal detectors, this is something that would be able to pass through metal detectors."

The Bridge of Lions

People around the world were terrified as news broke in June of a white van zigzagging across London Bridge, ramming into pedestrians before those inside the vehicle jumped out and tried to stab people.

It happened in London, and while at the Bridge of Lions at St. Augustine, she said that unfortunately, it could happen anywhere.

"It become a soft target and it's a tourist attraction. It's a bridge," Monteagudo said.

The Bridge of Lions, which is very popular for pedestrians, is one of the most well-known bridges around the First Coast. Monteagudo said to have monitored cameras covering this bridge would be a great deterrent.

She said in Middle Eastern countries she has visited, she says cameras place atop bridges are expected.

"You're talking about Abu Dhabi, Jordan, even Israel. And those countries really protect themselves. They have cameras all over the place," she said. "Even bridges, and people feel safe."

Another terrorism expert News4Jax had a chance to show around Jacksonville is Dr. Mitra Raheb.  While homegrown terror has gripped recent headlines, Raheb said the Islamist extremists of 9/11 are still a concern.

Raheb teaches students at two South Florida universities about terrorism and Islamist Ideology in the Muslim World. She said terrorists don't need to target the relatively few who cross the Bridge of Lions to accomplish their mission, she said instead they would look to nearby downtown St. Augustine.

WATCH: Safety in St. Augustine

"Look, it's beautiful, it celebrates life. It represents different cultures, different faiths, different traditions, and they [terrorists] don't believe in that," said Raheb.

EverBank Field

We wanted to get Raheb's expert opinion on other places where large groups gather in one spot, like EverBank Field. She says an extremist's main goal is a psychological impact -- to scare by creating chaos.

Raheb said the target would more likely be tailgaters versus those inside the stadium.

WATCH: Safety at EverBank Field

"Thousands of people running at the same time and think about how many hundreds of people could be killed, or even injured simply through the stampede," she said. "The next time that you want to go with your family, you're going to say, 'Wait, am I going to go? Am I going to risk my family?'"

Jacksonville Landing

Our waterways could be considered soft targets, according to Monteagudo.

She took a look along the St. Johns River and said, for example, with so many revelers enjoying fireworks downtown at Jacksonville Landing, she suggested visitors keep a wary eye to the water because she said security patrols do not phase terrorists.

"I don't have to go through any screening process. No one is really looking at me, they just see a boat -- like many of the boats that probably approach this dock here. And then I can execute my malicious intentions," she said.

Be cautious and have a plan

Any public space can be a soft target for terrorists, which is why, no matter where you go, the experts who traveled to Northeast Florida say caution is key.

"You have to take measures when you go. Make sure there's accurate security. Keep your eyes open, see what the other person sitting next to you is doing. Just be very careful, but enjoy life at the same time," Raheb explained.

She and Monteagudo added, families need to talk and have a plan before heading out.

About the Authors:

Joy Purdy co-anchors the 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. newscasts with Tarik Minor and the 11 p.m. weeknight newscasts with Kent Justice.