Inside the high-stakes world of celebrity security

By Shawn Engbrecht

Celebrity clients like Kim Kardashian can be among the most difficult clients for security personnel. Photo / AP
Celebrity clients like Kim Kardashian can be among the most difficult clients for security personnel. Photo / AP

Kim Kardashian's dramatic robbery earlier this week in Paris has raised a multitude of questions, many of them aimed at her team of bodyguards - and the security industry in general.

Could it be an inside job? Doesn't a celebrity of her stature have around-the-clock protection? Does the star's prolific social media use make her an especially easy target?

In a news.com.au exclusive, seasoned international celebrity bodyguard Shawn Engbrecht from CASS global security reveals what might have gone wrong to allow this robbery to happen - and how his team would react in a similar situation. It's a fascinating insight into an industry that, by its very nature, is rarely discussed publicly ...

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Devil's in the detail

Kim Kardashian lives and dies by multiple forms of instant communication. She earns a stunning pay check by permitting voyeurs into her privileged world, a fabulous lifestyle far removed from the rest of us.

But there is a price to be paid for 24/7 scrutiny, and it came home to roost in the robbery in Paris. When you flaunt a $4 million ring on a near hourly basis, you are inevitably going to draw some unwanted attention. And this time the bad guys got through the wall of security - which is a huge problem for people like me.

A photo posted by Kim Kardashian West (@kimkardashian) on


I have dealt with similar clients; those whose livelihood is predicated upon the proximity of the paparazzi. It's a Faustian bargain in terms of security, with both ends pulling in opposite directions. The client wants to "feel safe", but doesn't want security to intrude upon her daily routine. This routine may very well be followed by millions on Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram.

We in turn inform them we cannot possibly protect both them and their property when they provide long range forecasts of where they are, what they are wearing, and how pretty the front door of the empty house looks when it shows up on social media. Or if we can, it requires a redoubling of current efforts.

"You are essentially providing a live target update to a global audience on a daily basis and sooner or later you are going to pay for it," is my primary theme.

French police officers exit the Paris apartment. Photo / AP
French police officers exit the Paris apartment. Photo / AP

The client then promptly throws a fit and explains the need for social media in their life. We negotiate and find the just right balance on the security-convenience continuum. They accept an increased level of risk predicated upon lifestyle and convenience, and we accept that there are some things we can control, and some we cannot. If done correctly, it usually works.

I have also dealt with potential clients who have a grotesquely skewered concept of what security is, and hold unrealistic expectations of what we can feasibly accomplish. There comes a point when we walk away because if you forfeit all control while accepting all responsibility you have just inherited a bomb with the fuse burning.

The bottom line is that social media is here to stay, and the only way forward is with the client and the security element working in tandem. It doesn't always work that way - as the security disaster in Paris demonstrates.

Working abroad can be a fabulous experience if you do it correctly but there are a great many of us in security that get it wrong. The correct approach is to proactively liaise with the local law enforcement. We do this during the Cannes Film Festival on an annual basis and have a very high opinion of the French police who have been invariably professional, quick to react, and easy to work with.

Kim's bodyguard Pascal Duvier, who has vowed to find those responsible. Photo / Getty Images
Kim's bodyguard Pascal Duvier, who has vowed to find those responsible. Photo / Getty Images

The drama starts when the client's bodyguards consider themselves "too good" for the local constabulary and try to do the heavy lifting themselves. Friction starts almost immediately. Truth is, the top tier teams are "ego-free" and quick to ask for help when they need it. The second string, conscious of turf battles, are generally less amenable to playing well with others.

The second consideration is how much buy-in you get from the client. Travelling abroad is invariably a tougher push for security teams, but if your client supports and accepts that, it is manageable as you have a greater range of security features (be they local police, the placing of mobile technical means in client's residences, etc.) to employ while on the road.

Security abroad succeeds via detailed mission planning, logistics, and precise contingencies all drawn up and rehearsed long before the client ever leaves their house. It may be boring, but it's critical - which is why you need a brain to succeed in the big leagues.

Providing celebrity protection is a never-ending balancing act, far more so than any of our corporate or government clients. Ego, emotion, and intangibles (such as not having a certain "look" or not being "cool" enough) carry far more weight in the celebrity world than they do in the mainstream.

I was once turned down by a superstar A-lister because I "didn't look good enough" to be associated with them. In celebrity world, appearance often trumps substance. You're also potentially betting your job if you have a major disagreement with the boss. If the client wants to do A, and you think it a bad idea, you can veto it - but only at your peril.

My personal record, for a highly distinguished client who I think the world of, is being fired five times ... And rehired the next morning each time.

"In celebrity world, appearance often trumps substance." Photo / AP
"In celebrity world, appearance often trumps substance." Photo / AP

It all boils down to your relationship with the boss (your celebrity client) and the level of trust. If they have come to trust you, they will generally listen, provided you don't cry wolf on a regular basis. Having said that, I pick my fights very, very carefully, which is why I generally get what I ask for: They realise I wouldn't bring it up if it wasn't important.

Assuming all other things were equal - budget included - had CASS Global Security had this assignment, the following would have occurred:

1. Advance team arrives in Paris. They co-ordinate with local law enforcement, conduct a survey of the apartment, identify routes, threats, contingencies, and put it all on paper. We have a library of reports archived for venues such as this all over the world. We don't always have the convenience of several days' notice, and if a team needs the Raffles Hotel in Singapore or the Hassler Hotel in Rome they generally need it NOW.

2. The home team (with the client) digests and implements. As a standard rule, we don't budge an inch without our own internal technical means which alerts us as to when a door is opened, when a panic button (we strongly suggest them for clients) is pushed, etc. We also employ GPS and micro GPS for high value items, even placing them inside the client's clothing if need be. We set up internal cameras that only the security element can access. Many of our technical operations are kept confidential so the opposition doesn't know what we have, nor how we employ it. You can't negate defences when you might not be aware of their existence in the first place.

3. Once all are in Paris and the client is resting, the team rehearses a preselected number of drills, chosen based on the likelihood of their occurrence. For example, in Dubai last year we spent an entire night driving through the city. It made for an exhausting 36 hours, going on duty as the sun came up, but paid off when an unexpected event took place which required driving. Short-term misery translated into strategic gain. Another aspect of bodyguard life that rarely makes the press: You spend a lot of your life tired.

4. There is a daily in-brief with the client where the day's events are discussed and assignments are delegated accordingly. Everything is condensed, each individual knows his precise assignment, and communications team-wide are instantaneous. This means the actual conduct of the operation is the easy part as it has already been rehearsed several times.

5. We use a two-step authentication process, kind of like a confirmation SMS you'd receive when you access your bank account online. It means that nobody gets in until we can 100 per cent confirm they are who they say they are. The bogus police might have found that to be a challenge difficult to overcome without resorting to violence.

6. I can't vouch for what happened in Paris, but I can tell you that with our high profile clients there is a very alert, competent human being who can be at the client's side in a matter of seconds. The best teams are generally composed of a blend of our guys (who know the client well) and locals (who know the area well). It's a pretty formidable combination and we have never taken a serious hit. Of course, that doesn't mean you slip into a state of complacency either. It's the same old adage. The harder you train, the less likely you will actually have to fight because nobody wants to take you on in the first place.

Security guards stand outside of the building where Kim and husband Kanye West stayed in New York this week. Photo / AP
Security guards stand outside of the building where Kim and husband Kanye West stayed in New York this week. Photo / AP

France, like the rest of Europe, has very tight protocols regarding individuals and guns, forbidding foreign nationals from carrying firearms. Mexico has similar laws, which has caused no end of headaches to security personnel. We deal with issues regarding firearms worldwide on a daily basis.

What normally happens is that we sub-contract in-country service providers to provide armed security on the periphery while we manage the client. Armed security can either be off-duty police or pre-vetted security providers. Their job is to accompany us and intervene if and when necessary. As they are invariably locals, they provide great intelligence on everything from the best routes to take to the best restaurants. If they are an off-duty police officer, they also bring arrest powers with them.

We've have found this to be an ideal working relationship, and has resolved many a potential conflict. Think about it. If you knew you would have to gun down a police officer in addition to members of the security team, would you think twice about the risk/reward matrix when going after the rock on Kim Kardashian's finger?

The only way to circumvent these barriers is to have insider information. In other words, somebody is leaking intelligence to the opposition.

Let's look at the facts as we now know them: A number of men, several armed with pistols, bluffed their way into the residence wearing the same kind of jackets that police have.

They tied up all the staff, knowing they were unarmed, and proceeded uninterrupted into Kim Kardashian's suite knowing she was alone and without technical means such as panic buttons.

Experts believe that the robbers had some degree of inside info into Kim's life and schedule. Photo / AP
Experts believe that the robbers had some degree of inside info into Kim's life and schedule. Photo / AP

This crime certainly entailed intensely following, via social media, every move that Kim Kardashian made. It probably entailed an on-site review of the property where the crime was committed.

Disguise yourself as a flower salesman, a personal assistant on behalf of a high-profile client, whatever - all with the aim of getting the grand tour of the property. I used to live in Paris just a few blocks from where the crime occurred and the choice of bicycles as a mode of getaway is a genius stroke, given the area. Getting stuck in traffic with $10 million of stolen jewellery in a glove box and a bound and gagged Kim Kardashian behind you does not bode well for a happy ending.

There was no undue violence. No assaults. They knew what they wanted, came in cleanly and departed all in a matter of minutes. These people had made a collective decision to target the Kardashian family.

This raises an interesting point. Top-end jewel thieves are playing a pretty dangerous game, so they try to mitigate risk by going after only what they think they can get away with. These thieves didn't pick Kardashian out of thin air and were surely aware of the huge gaps in her personal security, which is precisely why they took advantage of it. Sound intelligence is the precursor to successful action, so it will be very interesting to see how the French police try to unravel that particular ball of string. If no "lucky breaks" in the form of fingerprints or some similar catastrophic error show up quickly, prepare for a long haul investigation if that is the case.

We live in a world increasingly dominated by social media. It has long been a security practice of key leaders such as the President, the Royal Family, etc. to minimise open access to their day-to-day activities, for obvious reasons. We do the same with private clients. We fly below the radar of social media, and by the time Twitter figures out what happened we are a few time zones away. It is a highly effective technique and we implement it whenever possible.

Those who live under the social media microscope exist in a different reality. Their longevity and success is based on how many people view them on an hourly basis. To keep the voyeurs entertained, the show has to be provocative, luxurious and sexy, or the deal is off.

Here's a perfect example. Tom Hanks can come out of nowhere to wish a newlywed couple every success in New York's Central Park for a brief moment or two. Nobody knew he was coming, nobody knew where he went afterwards, and he only displayed himself for several minutes. Perfect. Now imagine if it was broadcast on social media that Hanks was going to officiate a wedding in Central Park - the result would be anything but low-key.

Elizabeth and Ryan! Congrats and blessings! Hanx.

A photo posted by Tom Hanks (@tomhanks) on


The Kardashians have to, by their very nature, stand naked in Central Park on a daily basis. It's why they are a security nightmare. The bad guys get all the advantages - they learn the when, the where, and the how. We, the security, are denied the advantages provided to heads of state or corporate CEOs where we can cloak their comings and goings. We have to do it the hard way: More men, more equipment, and greater attention to detail as we have conceded most of the initiative to the opposition.

None of us know what actually occurred between the client and the security team. There are rumours that Kim's bodyguard was out "partying" with her sister, which would indicate incredibly poor judgment. But perhaps he was "ordered" to go out by his primary client, who possibly just wanted some quiet time. Perhaps the bodyguard screamed and jumped up and down for extra security measures, only to be denied. Or he could be (as so many are in the celebrity world) hired based on physical size and appearance as opposed to professional competency. There are two sides to every story - and we probably won't hear them both in the weeks to come.

So how does it all end? I hope that this incident serves as a wake-up call to the 'Celebrity Bodyguard' industry, where the hiring process has not always been based on cerebral competence. There is an increasing need for this sector to adapt the sleek professionalism usually more associated with their discrete compatriots in the corporate/government sector.

We got lucky this time because everybody is still breathing after the robbery. There is no guarantee that will be the case next time.

- news.com.au

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