Launch Slideshow

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Security Risk

Security Risk

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    In 2007— after years of odd behavior during city council meetings—Charles “Cookie” Thornton filed free-speech lawsuits in both county and federal courts against the city of Kirkwood, Mo., for barring him from speaking during council meetings. Photo: Michael Fielding

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    Photo: Michael Fielding

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    Panic buttons, a hazard situation policy, video system, and after-hours security around City Hall in Lima, Ohio, were good, but the city council wasn't convinced they were enough. A team led by Major Tony Swygart of the Lima Police Department, Human Resources Director Vince Ozier, and Public Works Director Howard Elstro has undertaken an audit of the city's physical security. Photo: City of Lima

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When asked how operations have changed to protect employees, survey respondents reported that they use handheld radios for faster communication from the field, conduct field visits in pairs, and are encouraged to phone in immediately with concerns. In Kirkwood, though, Thornton never posed an immediate threat to site inspectors.

Some departments have banned scofflaws from city hall and other buildings. But when city lawyer Hessel was granted a restraining order against him, Thornton took his campaign to street corners and a Sam's Club.

Some departments ensure a police presence during council meetings. In Kirkwood, Officer Ballman—who'd removed Thornton twice for disorderly conduct—was Thornton's first victim.

Some departments offer classes on self defense and conflict resolution. Yet no one was better at conflict resolution than Yost, who considered defamation lawsuits against Thornton fruitless. “What am I going to get out of something like that?” he asked Hessel.

Police Chief Plummer occasionally met Thornton for lunch and tried to distract him from his obsession with the city, once even suggesting that he could make a fortune selling cars. After all, he had the personality for it.

The city even backed off in issuing tickets—citing just a few in the last five years.

“Kirkwood was trying to be reasonable with someone who was unreasonable,” says Rudy Nydegger, professor of psychology and management at the Graduate College of Union University in Schenectady, N.Y. “Too often we try to deal with problems when the person we're trying to talk to is not working on logical premises.”

He advocates “a reasonable protection of access”—such as panic buttons and security guards or police on the premises at city halls and high-traffic public buildings. Although Kirkwood seemed to do all it reasonably could to protect its staff, Nydegger says that barring Thornton from city hall meetings and restricting his access to city hall may have terminated offensive behavior sooner. Instead, Thornton's grievances were able to fester over time.

It's important to understand the difference between acute and chronic conflicts, explains Nydegger, who's also a past president of the New York State Psychological Association. “You need to stabilize and neutralize an acute situation immediately, but with a chronic situation, look at the pattern,” he says. “The accumulation of evidence will help you to best deal with it.”

Offer something for the other person to walk away with, such as a promise to take up the issue with a supervisor. “But the most important thing we can do is listen to the person, tell him what you might be able to get done and that you'll get back to him,” Nydegger says. “People often complain that nobody in government listens to them.”

The city council did consider requiring Thornton to undergo a psychological examination but decided against it. “It's exercised around here very cautiously,” says Kirkwood Police Chief Plummer.

A city policy adopted before the shootings requires that all new employees receive three hours of basic customer service training conducted by personnel staff. One of the victims of recent budget cuts was an intensive two-day training session that centered on phone skills and face-to-face customer service geared largely toward office staff and others regularly in contact with the public, including public works employees.

Plummer says officers in training are advised to “let people vent so they'll listen to you,” he says. “And minimize your time with the person while maximizing your distance. Safety is created by time and distance.”

Thornton, a high school triple-jump state champion with a wide, toothy grin, was rarely an obvious threat. “Cookie fooled everybody,” Plummer says. “Like John Wayne Gacy, some people are just that good.”

Eighty-two percent of workplace violence comes from outside the organization, according to Jerald Greenberg, Abramowitz professor of business ethics at The Ohio State University. Since the Kirkwood shootings, many of our survey respondents report, cities are undergoing security audits.