Faces of Security

Faces of Security: Larry Thompson from the NBA’s Orlando Magic

“I’ve never been accused of being short on words,” joked Larry Thompson, Director of Security for the Orlando Magic, as he provided his in-depth interview responses for Total Security Advisor’s latest “Faces of Security” profile.

But, as a man whose storied career includes stints helping protect both our nation’s leaders and professional sports players, Thompson has wise words worth heeding.

Larry Thompson Security Orlando Magic

Before taking on his current role at the Florida-based National Basketball Association (NBA) team in 2017, Thompson held positions at the U.S. Capitol Police and the Sergeant at Arms Office of the U.S. House of Representatives.

In his post at the Orlando Magic, he leads team security and oversees functions, regulations, and guidance related to games, as well as player and coach appearances.

Please sit back and read on as Thompson reveals the unique challenges and benefits of his job, discusses the so-called “Bubble” season during COVID, makes industry predictions, and offers sage advice for newcomers in the security space.

How did you get your start in the field?

I began my law enforcement career rather inauspiciously in 1981 after graduating from the University of Central Missouri with a degree in Political Science. I had interned and worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., during each of my college summers and naturally leaned toward a job in the Congress, but my application with the U.S. Capitol Police (USCP) was more of a necessity of finding a job, rather than the seeking of an opportunity that it later turned into.

After familiarizing myself with the work of the USCP, I found myself the recipient of several promotions and numerous interesting assignments. After 28 years, I retired from the agency, taking a job as the Missions Director for my church.

After a year there, I was called by one of my former bosses, who worked for the House Sergeant At Arms, and asked if I would be interested in a position they had open in the office. I accepted, and for seven years worked in that office, becoming the Assistant Sergeant At Arms for Police Services and Law Enforcement.

My arrival at the Orlando Magic as their Security Director again came through a recommendation and referral. This time from my current boss at the time, the House Sergeant At Arms.

To sort of sum up the journey (the start!), I got my start by just being in a place of “readiness.” For anyone on their own journey, I would say look at the building blocks in your life and try to maximize upon your foundation. Look for assignments, rather than just opportunities. My previous work experiences, from my college jobs to my current position, put me in a great space to take advantage of both assignments and opportunities that came my way.

Who is/was your biggest influence in the industry?

So many people influenced me and helped me along the way. Not to sound maudlin, but I have told many people that if it wasn’t for a simple question from my wife, in the early days of our marriage and parenthood, I might never have taken seriously the job opportunities that were ahead of me within the USCP. Her unending support allowed me to take on responsibilities that came with promotion and pursue job opportunities that I might otherwise have ignored. 

In my early days on the police department, a wise sergeant taught me the value of taking care of your people. I observed how he took care of those he led, including me, and because of that caring, I was willing to do all I could to ensure he was pleased with my work product. When I was assigned to a rising lieutenant’s section of go-getters, I was imbued with a renewed sense of devotion, commitment, and excellence. A mentor who later became the chief of the agency selected me to become his assistant chief, and showed me the value of trust, attention to detail, and how to manage ultimate responsibilities.

It is difficult to pinpoint a “biggest” influence; instead, I have seen the influence of many over the course of my career—even those whose influence, if followed, might be termed negative, have had value. Seeing those with potentially negative influences helped me to see and understand what mannerisms and attitudes to avoid, in contrast to those with a positive influence, who I sought to learn from, and even emulate, as appropriate.

What’s your best mistake, and what did you learn from it?

Early in my law enforcement career, I had an idea for improving an operating procedure within our bureau. I was so sure of my idea that I bypassed sending it through my immediate supervisor (who I feared might slow things up, or disapprove of it), sending it instead directly to the commander of our bureau. My supervisor was not pleased and correctly counseled me on my error in bypassing him.

While this didn’t do irreparable harm to the relationship I had with my supervisor, it took me time to rebuild the trust that I had damaged. This “best mistake” helped me to learn the value of patience (my idea wasn’t so novel or critical that it needed to be heard without my supervisor’s approval, or input). I should have been patient in sending my idea through the proper chain, and I had to patiently regain the trust of my supervisor.

I also learned some much-needed humility. Of course, my actions made my supervisor view me as an arrogant know-it-all! Perhaps he didn’t express this, but I am sure he must have internalized it. (And correctly! Who was I to think I could just bypass him and his position/authority?)

As good as we think our ideas, or ways of doing things, are, there are usually (often?) other effective ways of getting the job done—your way (my way) is not the only way, and being aware of how your actions will potentially negatively impact others (and you) is always a good consideration.

I also learned that mistakes, when made as an error of the head, as opposed to an error of the heart, are things that we can recover from. Having the right attitude after we make a mistake (e.g., own it, apologize with sincerity, vow to try not to make the same error again [this can just be an internal discussion you have with yourself]) will allow you to move beyond the mistake

As Mandela said, “I never lose, I either win or learn.” We do well to learn from our mistakes.

What are the biggest security issues at your organization?

Of course, issues related to COVID, while primarily a health matter, have had an impact on security. Incorporating measures to reduce the transmission of COVID into security screening measures has been evidenced in several ways.

For example, in our organization, we restricted the use of biometric readers in our office space to diminish the likelihood of tactile transmission of the virus. We also incorporated health screening measures into fan attendance approvals (e.g., negative test requirements for certain seats). Addressing employee and fan mental health issues has also impacted security, particularly as it relates to the documented uptick in illicit fan behavior, and concerns over employee emotional well-being.

Even with COVID, the primary focus of security within the organization remains tied to the areas of personal protection (particularly as it relates to player safety), physical security (of arenas, administrative offices, and residences), brand protection, critical incident management, and large crowd management.

Are there any unique security challenges compared to some other organizations?

There are certainly issues related to security in professional sports that are not present in other areas.

While working for the USCP, part of our responsibility included the personal protection of every Member of Congress, with particular attention paid to leadership, and Representatives and Senators who may have had a threat pending against them. Most interest toward these protectees was politically motivated.

In the sports industry, the types of threats are more related to fan disappointment (with player performance [actually, somewhat similar to constituent disappointment with Member of Congress “performance”]) or undue and concerning fan interest.

Social media footprints of players create opportunities for all sorts of concerning interest, as well as the interest of fans who seek to be in the presence of athletes—ensuring players enjoy a safe environment at restaurants, bars, clubs, or basically at any public venue requires a great deal of planning and situational awareness.

The youth of many professional basketball players (especially within our organization), means that a particular understanding among security professionals must be established and maintained regarding the potential privation of life experiences that may be present in others, in order to help develop a sense of personal security self-awareness.

Does providing security for an NBA team come with any unique upsides (aside from free games, I’m assuming)?

Some benefits that are present in this area of professional sports include the availability of security resources that may not be obtainable by other security professionals.

For example, as the Security Director for the Orlando Magic, I have access to the NBA’s intelligence reports on a wide range of matters, including terroristic threats, health and safety information, and local issues (e.g., demonstration activity). The NBA also provides a robust investigative arm that can assist with a wide variety of queries regarding player and staff safety (e.g., threats to physically harm, extortion, theft).

The collaboration with other security and law enforcement professionals has been outstanding in my NBA experience. Arena security personnel, local law enforcement agencies, and even private security personnel reach out helping hands to assist in whatever capacity I have requested.

This is unusual as I compare it to my law enforcement career, where I often had to contend with regionalism, jurisdictional roadblocks (some legitimate, but some arbitrary), territorialism, and egos. This is not to demean these previous law enforcement relationships, but managing potential roadblocks in interactions with other law enforcement personnel sometimes required more time and deftness to achieve success.

You discussed COVID-19 earlier, but can you elaborate on how the pandemic changed the way you operate? Did priorities shift? Were there any specific steps you took to address the health and security issues?

Of course, COVID has had a dramatic impact on the sports industry. In basketball, we have seen significant, and at times stringent, methods imposed to provide for player and staff health and safety.

The NBA was the first sports industry to suspend its season in response to the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. Priorities shifted from the playing of games to the assurance of the health and safety of players, coaches, and employees. The resumption of the 2020 season in Orlando, called “The Bubble,” ensured that gameplay could continue within strict health and safety safety protocols to include daily testing, 100% wearing of masks, proximity readers, daily health assessments (to include daily temperature checks and oximeter checks), and no fans in the arenas. Fan and player interaction was restricted off the court as well.

Post-“Bubble,” the 2020-21 NBA Season was shortened, with many of the health and safety protocols instituted previously still in place. Continuing testing and the availability of vaccines also affected operations.

While the clear goal remained to play games, even into the current 2021-22 season, health and safety concerns continue to dominate off-the-court activities of players, coaches, and staff. To varying degrees, this impacts our security posture by making us aware of, and responsible for, not only the more traditional safety measures (e.g., personal protection, physical security, brand protection), but the enforcement of, and instruction regarding, health and safety protocols.

Some specific issues our organization has taken to address health and safety issues was an immediate closure of all offices, except those directly related to basketball operations; opportunities for testing (or mandates for testing depending upon your job); mandates for masks while in the office; opportunities for vaccinations/boosters; distribution of sanitation and cleaning products to all workspaces; continuing communication from our CEO and executive team regarding ongoing efforts to address health and safety, work-from-home mandates and options, return-to-work protocols, including opportunities to hear from medical experts regarding the virus; provision of mental health info to all employees to assist with managing mental fitness during the pandemic; and implantation of NBA health and safety protocols regarding in-person attendance at games.

What’s your favorite part about working in the industry?

Working as a security professional in general is intrinsically rewarding. Having an ability to help ensure the safety and security of others is extremely gratifying, pleasing, and fulfilling. To have had the opportunity to provide security in two singular and distinctive arenas, for the United States Congress and for a professional basketball team, is something that I try not to take for granted. There is no other U.S. Capitol in the world, and no other organization charged with protecting the Capitol Complex and those working in it and visiting it. To have had a small part in ensuring that the Congress can carry out its Constitutional duties, and do so safely (or restore order when the safety is breached), is one of my favorite remembrances.

Having a role at providing security for some of the most historically significant events in our nation’s history (e.g., presidential inaugurations, State of the Union addresses, significant legislative events), as well as managing security in the middle of crisis events such as 9/11, the Anthrax and Ricin attacks on the Congress, and numerous others, is something that I feel privileged to have been a part of.

Currently, in a somewhat similar fashion, ensuring the safety and security of professional athletes, their families, and caring for the staff supporting this industry is an unparalleled experience.

What’s your least favorite part about working in the industry, and how would you change it?

My least favorite part of my current job is the travel. With a season running from October to April and including 82 regular season games (half of which are on the road), you definitely feel the grind. Holidays are impacted, as well as significant time away from family.

Security and law enforcement in general will have expected and unexpected impacts on personal time. Changing this aspect of the job is not really possible, unless the governing body determines to shorten the season (extremely unlikely!). Therefore, it is crucial to understand the impact this will have on your life, and on those who support you.

Establishing good mental, emotional, and spiritual habits will enable you to meet the challenging demands of security work. Ensuring your significant other, and other family and friends, also understand your work life and its peculiar challenges is important as well.

How can company leaders make security a value within their organization?

Interestingly, at the Capitol, and in communities in general, the value of security is more or less “built in”—legislative requirements for law enforcement and security in communities ensure that the structure is in place to protect people and property.

However, ensuring that the community trusts the law enforcement professionals to operate fairly and consistently is a priority, and especially so in our current environment.

Community leaders must devote appropriate resources to ensure the right people are employed as security professionals, and that policies and protocols are effective in not only enforcing laws, but in appropriately addressing law enforcement/community interactions and expectations.

Company leaders must also fight against complacency. I have observed the support of the community (and leaders) soar for security and law enforcement in the midst, or immediate aftermath, of a crisis, only to see it wane over time—complacency among company leaders must be avoided, and security professionals must be adroit at persuading company leaders to embrace security efforts in an ongoing manner.

In professional sports, or other non-governmental organizations, security must be able to create a business case for their operation. Company leaders will see value in security as they understand the value added by employing robust security programs. Creating an environment where employee safety, customer safety, brand protection, asset and information security, and income generation (as mated to a safe work environment) is something that all company leaders should strive to achieve.

Company leaders should also look to create executive-level security positions within the organization. This sends a message to the entire organization of the value of security, plus, when properly placed within the organizational structure, it can give more direct access for the security professional to the company leader. Organizations employing Chief Security Officers or other named executives in charge of security, no matter the title, have taken a step to ensure that security matters are not an afterthought, and are woven into the fabric of the organization.

Where do you see the industry heading in five years? Are you noticing any major trends?

By its very nature, security and law enforcement are more reactive than proactive. One of the objectives of a good security program is to be able to respond to threats and concerning activities, but it is also clear that proactive measures can reduce the likelihood of minor or even catastrophic events.

The difficulty, of course, is in convincing leaders of potentials that may seem outlandish, or absurd (e.g., predicting that terrorists would fly planes into buildings). Devoting resources to high-consequence/low-probability threats will always be difficult, so security professionals must be able to persuade others utilizing legitimate justification.

Staying abreast of developing technologies, intelligence movements, and community expectations will always be important, but will likely take on added importance in the years ahead.

COVID has impacted the manner in which employees and others are allowed into the workplace. Innovative approaches to physical security will include implementing advanced biometrics for access, likely to expand in the future. Adding health and safety screening methods into workplace access will also likely see increased implementation.

Hybrid working models (i.e., work split between in-office and home/off-site locations) will also impact security. Fewer employees on-site at the workplace may reduce the number of security personnel and access points into office buildings. Increased use of cameras, or other remote monitoring devices, may be implemented to ensure adequate security is provided in the absence of personnel. Employees working from home must be provided with appropriate methods of protecting information.

COVID may have also heightened the need for cooperation between human resources and security regarding the identification of insider threats and workplace safety (threats and employee workplace violence issues are up). The need for companies to identify and address employees who may resort to violence is crucial to protecting employees and ensuring the continuity of business operations is upheld.

Managing the ability of employers to allow free speech, while still prohibiting violence, threats of violence, or bullying/intimidating behaviors is another area where security and human resource elements must coordinate.

While always an important component of security planning, ensuring Continuity of Operations procedures are in place, and updated, will continue to remain a priority in the future. Far too often, a continuity plan is created, only to be shelved and not updated annually, as should be required. Personnel changes and the need to educate leadership and staff on these crucial operational plans should motivate leaders to place these programmatic guidelines as a priority within their organization.

Technological security applications (other than those mentioned previously) such as managing cyber threats will be increasingly critical in the years ahead. Companies must take seriously these threats and employ technologies to defeat attempts to compromise computer systems. Additionally, employees must continue to receive training to reduce their susceptibility to attack (e.g., phishing).

The emergence of drone use can be both a benefit to security operations, as well as a concern. Beneficially, drones can be used by security professionals for crowd management, surveillance, etc. Conversely, illicit drone use threatens to compromise security perimeters, and even the physical security of personnel. Addressing threats posed by drones will require both legislative solutions (e.g., laws regulating the use of drones) and practical methods of reducing/restricting drone access to sensitive/controlled areas.

What are you most proud of?

Personally, I try to limit feelings of pride within myself, or things that I may have been fortunate enough to witness being accomplished. Part of this stems from the recognition of my own weaknesses, and the blessings that I have received in spite of them. Throughout my career, I have been privileged to work with exceptional individuals, some who had led me, and others who I have had the honor of guiding in some small way.

If I look back, and consider my present situation, I am grateful to have been thought of in a positive light by my cohorts. I’m not perfect, which many could attest to, but fulfilling employment and achieving success, in any meaningful way, is about relationships. I am thankful to have had so many good relationships throughout my career.

This, I think, breeds achievement, for both the organization and the personnel within it. This achievement is profound, especially when the credit for the achievement is duly given to the person/people who are/were responsible for the accomplishment (i.e., family, friends, and supporters).

Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

Entering the profession of security (and law enforcement as a specific subset of that) requires a motivation that looks beyond self. With law enforcement under scrutiny, it is particularly wise for anyone thinking of choosing this career to be particularly self-aware and to critically consider their purpose, goal, and aim in doing so. Financial rewards are generally modest, and in this era, and perhaps always, others might view your profession (and you) with skepticism, or outright hostility. Prepare yourself to be loved by some, and even hated by others. Understanding your biases is now as important as it ever was (more so?), so taking time to understand these, and effectively manage them, is also crucial.

Once you have addressed these foundational issues, consider the following:

Prepare yourself for long hours, and know that flexibility will be required of you to fully meet the requirements of the job. You must ask others (family and friends) to maintain this flexibility with you. Your sacrifices of time away from friends and family will affect not only you, but them.

Develop and maintain an inquisitive mind. Educate yourself (though now somewhat of a cliché, be a lifelong learner—not only in the specifics of the job itself, but about you). Know who you are and what you are about. Hold yourself to high standards, with a high moral compass. Develop in yourself the attributes of just being a good person—treat others fairly and respectfully, and refrain from harsh judgments. (I can think of many times in my law enforcement career when I looked at a person that our agency had just arrested, and thought of the rather thin line that separated me from them—a situation or circumstance in my own life, had it gone another way, and I might have been the one in handcuffs.)

Wherever you are in your career, do the best job you can while in that position. You are always on the way to somewhere, and people are always looking at you, evaluating how you treat them, how you manage stress and disappointment, and how you manage success.

Always look to find that person, or persons, who you can learn from. Having a mentor was so very helpful to me in my career. Hopefully it will be someone you can have interaction with to learn from and grow, but mentors can also be people who you observe from a distance and seek to apply their best attributes into your way of doing things. As you learn from a mentor, also seek to share what you have learned and experienced with others. Not only is this helpful to them, but you will reap great rewards from lending a helping hand to others.

While security is a demanding profession, it is undoubtedly one with great returns. You will be providing others with a safe environment within which to work or relax—to live life. The gratification that comes from helping and protecting others is hard to quantify, but the work carries with it its own, satisfying rewards.

Anything else you’d like to add?

It’s difficult to discuss policing/law enforcement or security without mentioning the issues confronting our society regarding systemic bias, racial disparities, and inequality generally. These matters are not new, but the interest in addressing them has taken on new meaning recently. The attempt to address the apparent and nuanced components of these issues is occupying much of our society, with many competing viewpoints vying for acceptance.

Without offering a lengthy discourse on the matter, I would like to suggest that law enforcement agencies, along with their communities, and security operations, along with their companies, must take steps to address these important matters in a deliberative manner.

In our own organization, the hiring of a diversity and inclusion officer has pointed us in a direction to foster an assurance that these matters will remain part of an ongoing discussion and encourage implementation of steps to address bias and stimulate greater inclusion.

Agencies should take steps to ensure that they are hiring individuals who have attitudes corresponding to the agency values in this area, and training must be implemented and/or continued to provide employees with the tools to meet the standards the agency desires. This is not easy work, so a commitment from leaders, long-term, will be necessary to ensure success in this vital area.

Are you or a colleague interested in being profiled for the new “Faces of Security” series? Please contact Editor Joe Bebon at JBebon@BLR.com