By Mary Jane Smetanka
Behind the soaring windows and sleek facade of Forest Lake’s elegant new city center are other state-of-the-art design features: bulletproof glass service windows, hidden panic buttons on the City Council dais, and security cameras inside and out.
The possibility of violence is a fact of life for government officials around the country, including those in Minnesota. In January 2015, a man walked into the New Hope City Hall with a shotgun during a Council meeting, resulting in the wounding of two police officers before he was killed. In 2011, a man who had been convicted of sexual assault in Cook County returned to the courthouse with a gun and shot two people, including the county attorney.
While such high-profile incidents are rare, security concerns are widespread among Minnesota cities. A request from city clerks in southwestern Minnesota led the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) to offer training sessions for officials who want to try to avoid violence—and learn how to make city buildings safer if the unthinkable happens.
The sessions were presented at the LMC Regional Meetings around the state last fall. This spring, the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust (LMCIT) Safety and Loss Control Workshops will include information on how to spot disgruntled and troubled employees and citizens, strategies for making city buildings safer, and tips on what to do if violence erupts.
Recognize the signs and be prepared
“It’s about stopping the incident before it happens; recognizing the hazards,” says Troy Walsh, an LMCIT loss control consultant with a background in firefighting and public works. “It’s knowing the potential is there.”
Walsh presents League workshops with Tracy Stille, an LMCIT loss control consultant who is a retired Maple Grove police captain. Stille says education is needed. Some city officials, for example, don’t realize that they can’t prohibit people from carrying guns into public buildings if those people have a permit.
“A lot of [city officials] are surprised to find that out,” Stille says. “The question is who should be carrying or not carrying, and do we need police at meetings where hot topics are coming up. Cities need an emergency plan and an evacuation plan.” Stille and Walsh say city officials have shared stories about residents who stomp into city hall to harangue them about water bills, or show up at their homes to rant about snowplowing. That’s scary for clerks who work alone at city hall, and for councilmembers who find an angry resident pounding on their door at night.
Distinguishing a one-time outburst from chronic behavior is key, Walsh says. Many of the people involved in violent incidents were known to be troubled beforehand. The New Hope shooter had many contacts with police departments over the years, repeatedly called 911, and was hospitalized for mental issues.
“If someone is calling with complaints constantly … are they getting worse? Are they complaining to you in public, meeting you at your place of worship or in the grocery store? If the trends are getting more severe, that’s what we want people to recognize,” Walsh says. “Law enforcement should be tracking things and thinking about what [the person] might do. If we can recognize it ahead of time, we might stop them.”
Some of the same behavior patterns may identify troubled employees: constantly blaming others for workplace issues, extended periods of being withdrawn or depressed, out-of-ordinary behavior, and obsessive discussion about violent incidents elsewhere.
Not all security measures are expensive. Walsh and Stille suggest having police at meetings when controversial topics are on the agenda. In small cities, clerks who are concerned about a visit from an angry citizen should arrange to have an open phone line to a neighbor, like a nearby business, so that someone can come over or call the police if something seems wrong.
When Walsh was working for the City of Victoria, the City Hall front desk was walled off from offices. A portable door bell was installed under the desk to alert other employees if a second person was needed at the front desk. Access to city buildings can be limited by locking doors if there are multiple entrances or allowing conversations with irate residents only through a window.
Even rearranging chairs and tables in meeting rooms so that city councilmember can see who is entering the room is helpful. Of course, you want to have open government and to be welcoming to the public, but that has to be balanced with safety to employees and officials, Stille says.
After the New Hope incident, Osseo officials began having discussions about how to protect their City Council and staff at their 1980s City Hall. The wood front of the Council dais was replaced with bulletproof material to protect councilmembers if they had to hit the floor. Wireless panic buttons were also installed in the Council chambers and at the receptionist’s desk. When pushed, they alert an alarm company and then police. The police station is next to City Hall.
The bulletproofing cost about $8,500. The security system was about $300 for installation with ongoing costs of about $10 per month, says Shane Mikkelson, police chief for the city of 2,400 residents. He says the city talked about adding bulletproof glass atop the dais but councilmembers rejected that because of the unfriendly message it would send.
“They wanted some protection and peace of mind, but not the outward projection to residents that they can’t come here,” Mikkelson says. “We’ve really worked hard to keep it a small town. You have to be on guard for big-town issues because we’re in the metro, but we want to have [a friendly] face, too.”
When Forest Lake (population 19,000) began building its new $18 million city hall-police-fire complex in 2013, officials had security in mind. It has 11 exterior cameras and some interior cameras, all linked to a monitor in the Police Department.
“We see everyone who walks through the doors, in an unobtrusive way,” says City Administrator Aaron Parrish. The city put up signs establishing a safe “swap spot” in the parking lot for Craigslist transactions and custody exchanges, where people know they are on camera.
Service counters in each city department are fronted by two panels of bulletproof glass. One glass panel hangs from the ceiling; the other rises from the counter. The two are offset by a roughly three-inch gap that lets people talk without raising their voices. A tray allows exchange of documents.
“There was a discussion about how to balance openness with security,” Parrish says. “I thought people might think it was a little more impersonal than just coming over the counter, but they haven’t reacted that way.”
Conference rooms to the side of the counters allow longer conversations with builders and others who need time with city officials. There are separate locked doors for the public and employees. Access to most of the rest of the building is controlled by key cards.
Wireless panic buttons were installed at the City Hall counter, police counter, and the City Council dais, which is made of bulletproof material.
The key card access system cost $45,000, and the security cameras about $35,000. Bulletproof materials and the button system totaled about $46,250.
“We deal with some challenging things here, whether it be code enforcement, permits, or wetland issues,” Parrish says. Security measures have “provided some reassurance for staff; there have been negative situations where it made them feel more secure.”
Even with such measures, Stille believes every city should be proactive in figuring out how to handle a violent incident. Cities need an emergency plan and should consider an active-shooter drill.
“It’s good training to have. What if it happened here? What do we do? Do we have escape routes? How do we get police here?” Stille says.
“Somebody who is bent on pulling off an active-shooter incident is going to do it,” he adds. “You need to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”
Mary Jane Smetanka is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.
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