When VIPs are in town PC Phil Southan is often lurking – not for an elusive autograph or a ‘selfie’ with royal assent but, as a West Midlands Police Close Protection Officer, to keep a watchful eye over visiting dignitaries.
He’s trained to protect “principals” against everything from stalkers and sinister threats to over-zealous fans who risk embarrassing high-profile guests with interminable handshakes or gushing embraces.
It’s a role that sees him trained in close-quarters combat and driving manoeuvres more akin to Hollywood, California, than Hollywood south Birmingham. But, as Phil explained, he’s no Kevin Costner type bodyguard!
How do you get to be a Close Protection Officer – it sounds a very specific role?
Since joining West Midlands Police 17 years ago it was always my ambition to become a firearms officer – and after almost a decade on the streets, as a neighbourhood and emergency response PC, I realised that goal. And four years ago I passed the national standard needed to be a Close Protection Specialist.
What does the training involve?
Essentially it’s ensuring the security, safety and reputation of your principal…that’s the term used for the person you’re protecting. So it’s everything from preparing for VIP visits – the protocol briefings with royal or government staff and meticulous recces – through to dealing with any threats that emerge on the day and advanced driving in case you need to get away from a scene swiftly.
So on occasions you chauffer the dignitaries?
It’s not chauffeuring as such…it’s part of the close protection package. You’re taught how to drive a range of vehicles – for example a two-tonne armour plated vehicle isn’t going to handle like a normal road car – and extremes of driving from the very smooth to dynamic manoeuvres should they be required to leave a potentially threatening situation or navigate through a barricade.
We’re continually trained and reassessed to maintain our qualifications.
So if someone breached a cordon and was heading towards the Queen, what would you do?
Obviously it depends on the situation: in the unlikely event of the person having a weapon then we’re trained to take the ultimate decision and pull the trigger. But you’re talking about extremely rare incidents. Often it’s just an over-exuberant well-wisher you have to usher away or perhaps a protestor. We’re trained in discreet, close-quarters restraint techniques – you can’t just run over and rugby tackle someone as the embarrassment caused by that would probably outweigh any threat posed by the person.
And by the way…I’ve never worked alongside the Queen.
So who have you close protected?
Every other senior royal, politicians including the PM, the Pope and international royalty. During the Olympics I was assigned to the King and Queen of Malaysia…it’s a window into another world!
Do you have a favourite to work with?
Ha ha…you’re not going to draw me on that one!
Every job has different demands and considerations: when involved with a visit by Prince William you’re likely to get larger crowds – and often lots young girls wanting to sneak a peek or handshake – than you would with, say, Prince Andrew who visited a college, the NEC and Birmingham Airport in March.
What’s the difference between you and a bodyguard then?
Most people’s idea of a bodyguard is a 20-stone muscle-bound bloke walking next to a celebrity and shoving photographers or fans out of the way. That’s nothing like our role. We’re there because the assessed threat level warrants an armed presence – but it is discreet, exacting protection…not in your face.
You have to be close enough to keep your principal safe without intruding. It’s not just about security, though, as a key aim is averting embarrassing situations. That could be someone who shakes hands but refuses to let go, tries to hand over a gift that could leave them red-faced or someone literally throwing themselves at the VIP…not unheard of when Prince William is in town. Some people are obsessed with high-profile personalities so we’re also made aware of people to be on the lookout for in case they cross the line.
Don’t royalty or senior politicians have their own bodyguards?
The Met Police has a full-time protection team and senior royalty have officers assigned to them for their personal security. During visits, the host police force provides close protection support and works closely with these teams.
What do you enjoy most about the job?
The challenge: the planning, organising and delivery. There’s lots of preparation that goes into each visit…you can’t just turn up at a venue! We receive an itinerary and route they’re expected to take and carry out lots of recces…but we have to plan for the unexpected. They could deviate away from the plan, a vehicle could breakdown, there may be a medical emergency…or even an emergency toilet break! You have to consider myriad possibilities and ask yourself what you’ll do if they emerge. Planning for major political conferences can take weeks.
Close Protection Officers are like swans: on the surface serene but underneath our feet are paddling 10 to the dozen!
Do you work full time as a Close Protection Officer?
No – I work with West Midlands Police’s Operational Firearms Team that provides armed capability and responds to any emerging situations that require a swift response. We all have specialist skills – some colleagues are rifle officers, others counter terrorism and I’m close protection.
If you weren’t a police officer what job do you think you’d be doing?
Possibly a pilot – I was training to be an airline pilot when a recruitment opportunity arose with the police. I was successful and have never looked back…I love the job.
Phil is 42-years-old, a father of two and has lived in Wolverhampton all his life.