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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And the training should be at least one full day. Anything less, Nydegger says, “would be heavy on background and light on application, or vice versa.”

If a constituent is angry but not overtly threatening:

  • Listen to his concerns and let him express himself. Maintain eye contact and do not interrupt.
  • When he's finished, restate his grievances to ensure you understand and demonstrate respect for his point of view.
  • Help him generate solutions.
  • If you can't help him, offer to refer him to the city employee who can. If that person isn't in the public works department, find out who can address the issue, and share that information. Refer him to an individual, not just an entire department.
  • Follow up to find out if and how the situation was resolved.

Most people respond to reasonable attempts to defuse a heated encounter. But if someone's verbally abusive or you become concerned for your physical safety:

  • Set limits on your willingness to listen. For example, if you've been threatened or someone continues swearing, say, “I will try to help and respect your issues, but I would like you to respect me as well.”
  • If that escalates the encounter, remove yourself and get help.
  • Try to move to a place with some privacy, but don't isolate yourself from co-workers or the public in case you need help. Try to place a physical obstruction (such as a desk) between the constituent and yourself.
Close encounters

Nearly 400 PUBLIC WORKS readers share stories of run-ins, both in the field and at the office, with less-than-satisfied customers.

In February, Public Works Director Ken Yost was one of five Kirkwood, Mo., personnel killed when a disgruntled contractor gunned his way past police stationed outside city hall and opened fire on a council meeting.

Although the average citizen thinks public safety employees face the most danger in serving the community, the editors of PUBLIC WORKS suspected that public works employees are equally vulnerable—if not more so. To confirm our belief, we asked readers if they'd ever felt threatened, whether the situation was resolved to the satisfaction of both parties, and how department operations may have changed as a result. Within a week we'd received nearly 375 responses to our e-mailed questionnaire.

Many respondents feel the dangers they face are taken as much for granted as the value of the services they provide; others have resigned themselves to this aspect of their chosen profession. Among their comments:

“In today's world, you simply don't know how far someone will take it when he doesn't get the response he wants from municipal employees.” — Pennsylvania

“You think twice when an angry property owner comes jumping across an open storm sewer cut carrying a pick axe.” — Illinoi

“I would've liked to see the police charge him with a crime, but they didn't seem very interested in pursuing it; they figured he was just a knucklehead, and they had ‘real criminals' to pursue.” — Delaware

“You have to get into their world to see their point of view.” — Colorado

“He backs off just before he crosses the line into physical abuse. I'm not so certain that he'll always be so disciplined.” — Indiana

“Our local police banned the resident from the public works office.” — Florida

“Tires were slashed on my personal vehicle.” — Washington State

“I was told to deal with it or maybe it wasn't the place for me to work.” — Montana

“Offering what you can do and then following through on the promise will calm the situation.” — Arizona

“A resident agitated by a construction project entered my office and physically attacked me.” — Wisconsin

“Don't be run over by [problem constituents], and take the time to listen and be responsive.” — California

“The customer threatened to burn the place down with me in it.” — Florida

“Law enforcement can't do anything unless a law is violated.” — Massachusetts