Taking stock of building security
In the aftermath of the July murder of a councilman in New York’s City Hall, local governments across the country are re-examining and, in some cases, changing their building security. However, despite the considerable fears and concerns raised by the horrific crime and the attendant nationwide news coverage, it remains far from clear how much of an effect the killing will have on city and county security operations.
James Davis, 41, a councilman from Brooklyn, was shot to death by Othniel Askew, 31, a political rival, in the New York City Council’s chambers, just before a council meeting was to begin. Earlier in the day, Davis and Askew had entered City Hall together, and because Davis was a councilman and Askew his guest, the two did not have to pass through the building’s metal detectors.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg reacted immediately, announcing that everyone entering City Hall, including himself, would now have to pass through the metal detectors.
Some other cities were quick to adopt similar measures. In Houston, all visitors and elected officials seeking entrance to City Hall must now pass through metal detectors, while in Boston, only the mayor is exempt.
Meanwhile, officials in other major cities have pronounced themselves satisfied with the security practices that were in place at the time of the New York assassination. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley told The Associated Press (AP) that he does not intend to change City Hall protocol, which calls for visitors to be screened with a metal detector only during council meetings. Daley’s counterpart in San Francisco, Willie Brown, also informed the AP that he is OK with City Hall’s security.
David Gershwin, communications director for Los Angeles City Council President Alex Padilla, says that the city is not planning any changes to its building security. The mayor, council members and other elected officials are able to access City Hall from a secured parking area and do not have to pass through the metal detectors.
Despite the changes in some cities and the discussion about changes in others, the New York slaying ultimately will have very little impact on security, predicts John Strauchs, CEO of Reston, Va.-based Systech Group, a security and fire-protection engineering firm whose clients include many cities and counties.
It will not become common for elected officials and other VIPs to have to pass through screening devices before entering local government buildings, Strauchs says. That is simply because people like their perks too much, he argues.
In the local governments that do adopt such guidelines, there is likely to be a backslide eventually as officials long for their old perks, Strauchs adds, citing his observations over the years of changes in courthouse security. “I’ve seen chief justices go out of their way to go through metal detectors, even though judges are almost always exempt, [and] six months, nine months down the road, it gradually reverts back to the old system,” he says.
The poor fiscal shape of many local governments is another reason why the New York incident will not have a significant impact, Strauchs says. The vast majority of local governments do not have screening devices in their buildings, but even if they are compelled to undertake serious upgrades of their facilities, the funds are often just not there, he says. “I think [the killing will create] a small ripple. It will fade, like all ripples do.”
(To read more about local government security, read “The guests are here” on p. 42.)