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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“We're wrestling with how to accommodate people's access to public officials,” says Lima, Ohio, Public Works Director Howard Elstro, who's spent the last three months analyzing the physical security of municipal buildings in the city of 43,000 located between Toledo and Dayton.

The city is considering enforcing the council chamber's 80-person occupancy requirement and installing a metal detector at City Hall's main entrance, an initiative that would require $50,000–$80,000 in staffing costs and $20,000 for the machine itself.

In Kirkwood, newly elected Kirk-wood Mayor Art McDonnell says the city is making changes, but in a different direction. Council chambers are more accessible now that a rope across the dais has been removed, as has the clock that tracked public speakers' time. McDonnell now greets the public before each meeting. “This is about customer service and how you deal with those you're in contact with every day,” he says. The city is considering installing a metal detector at City Hall.

“Aside from physical improvements, the most important thing we can do is train our personnel. The most effective deterrent is intervention,” says Elstro, who plans to recommend that the Lima, Ohio, council approve the same intervention techniques for his employees that police officers receive.

Crisis-intervention training will pay its dividends, says Elstro, who puts a $4,000 price tag on the in-house training. He plans for the first phase of such training to be completed by the fall for administrative/customer service staff as well as foremen and supervisors.

Nydegger believes most physical-safety training is weak. “Organizations need to commit themselves to the idea that a two-hour training session is not enough.”

He also says that although violence is difficult to predict, two factors contribute to its likelihood: history of violence and substance abuse. “Talk to the police and ask if the person has a history,” he advises. Knowing that history helps city employees better determine how to confront problem constituents.

For the Kirkwood victims and their families, such a peek into Thornton's past would have turned up little. He had no history of substance abuse or criminal record except for the assault charge against Yost and the two disorderly conduct arrests during council meetings. “He never resisted, and he was friends with some of the police here,” Police Chief Plummer says.

Cathy Yost rests on a simple bench overlooking Memorial Courtyard at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Kirkwood. Nearby is the grave of her second son, Paul, who committed suicide in 2002 at the age of 20. At her feet is the grave of her husband. Married at 19 to the man she was introduced to through a blind d date less than two years earlier, Yost say the couple had every intention of “a nice long retirement together. I fully intended to die first.”

Yost received her husband's accrued vacation pay and was offered complimentary grief counseling, which she declined in favor of weekly sessions offered through her health insurance.

She received lump sums of one and-a-half times her husband's annual salary through his life insurance program as well as the equivalent to three times his annual salary through his accidental death and dismemberment (AD&D) program, and she receives biweekly payments through his worker's compensation—all basic benefits offered to all civilian employees by the city. Police and fire employees receive slightly higher benefits, according to Kirkwood Public Information Officer Claire Budd.

Some public works directors argue that benefits should reflect the dangers of the job, just as they do in the public safety sector.

In 2006 there were more fatalities nationwide among local government public works employees (43) than firefighters (42), according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Police suffered 101 fatalities.