Washington County explores security upgrades at satellite buildings

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 29, 2014 - 11:46 PM

Threats from “irate customers” at the county’s 19 buildings drive officials’ growing concern.

Washington County expects to hire a full-time security coordinator next year because of growing concern about threats of violence at county offices and how employees should respond.

The budget proposal, which would add a deputy sergeant to Sheriff Bill Hutton’s ranks next year, came from County Administrator Molly O’Rourke’s office. The recommendation to put someone in charge of security at the county’s 19 public buildings began with a safety and security task force that advised against any further “temporary solutions,” O’Rourke told the County Board at a recent meeting.

“We want our employees to be aware of dangerous situations and what to do,” O’Rourke said last week.

Law enforcement officers and prosecutors in Washington County have warned repeatedly in recent years of a trend toward more violent crime because of drug trafficking and mental illness.

That’s happening despite a decline in overall numbers of violent crimes. County offices become potential targets because of anger over taxation, land use and child custody, and supervision of men and women on probation for criminal offenses.

The Sheriff’s Office and city police departments already respond to trouble at county properties. However, it’s envisioned that the proposed security coordinator would address a long-standing concern that county offices, especially smaller libraries, remain vulnerable.

The proposed security coordinator would recommend safety improvements, coordinate security policies, train employees and develop protocols for law enforcement responses to any problem.

Pulling together “bits and pieces” of various policies to create a uniform approach would serve both employees and county residents, O’Rourke said.

For example, employees should be trained in how to respond to levels of danger, she said. They also should know how to alert other employees and any county residents doing business in a building.

“I think it’s been a concern for a very long time,” she said, referring to findings of three county task forces since the early 1990s.

At the county’s main campus in Stillwater, numerous security improvements were made when the complex was remodeled a few years ago, and the Sheriff’s Office is housed in the adjacent Law Enforcement Center.

The district courthouse, in Stillwater, has the most secure public entrance of any county building. Sheriff’s deputies monitor a metal detector looking for weapons; other deputies posted on three floors watch for trouble in courtrooms and hallways.

However, other public buildings scattered throughout the county lack many of those security innovations.

“We tend to staff places pretty leanly,” O’Rourke said. “Librarians aren’t trained in security practices.”

Hutton, during a recent 2015 budget presentation to the County Board, said county interest in improved security tends to rise and fall as individual incidents come and go.

“Everybody’s operating out of a different level of security,” he said of differences among county buildings. It’s important to have a consistent approach to security and ongoing training for employees because of the increasing frequency of “emotionally driven” behavior by people who think they’ve been wronged, he said.

The county’s security task force report, updated in 2013, concluded that most employees feel safe in the workplace, but those who deal with “unwilling and irate customers” and those who make visits to people’s houses “experience an increased risk and a diminished control” over their work environment.

In that report, employees expressed concern about too many building entrances, inadequate lighting in parking lots, and having no separation from people being released from jail.

  • Already in Place

    Washington County security improvements in recent years:

    • The new courthouse has state-of-the-art measures, such as weapons screening, secure separate entrances for jail inmates, observation cameras and card reader entrances.

    • The county has purchased a new key card access control system that allows for better control in various areas of the workplace. The system is being used in many, but not all, county buildings.

    • Redesigned space in the Stillwater Government Center funnels public access through three main entrances. Public meeting rooms have been combined in a single centralized area. County departments receiving the most visits by the public now are closer to main entrances.

    • Several departments offer training for safety and security of employees and customers.

    Source: Washington County Security Task Force recommendations

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