More than half of Sampson County employees surveyed are concerned about violence in their workplace. The county, with the formation of a local committee, has sought to ease some of those worries.
Due to recent high-profile violent events impacting government agencies nationwide and several events locally, including an attack at the Veteran’s Service Office about a year ago, a County Building Security Committee was formed with the purpose of identifying potential security risks and recommending cost-effective solutions to address, and reduce, those risks.
The committee examined all county-owned and operated facilities — courthouse issues were not addressed due to a separate survey conducted by the U.S. Marshal’s Service — focusing in three areas: the perimeter of the building, the building exterior and the building interior. During October and November 2012, the committee conducted walk-through assessments of county-owned facilities at night. An online survey of employees was also used to solicit security concerns.
“The results gathered included feedback from about half of the county employees, excluding the Sheriff’s Department,” said Heather Bonney, director of the Sampson-Clinton Public Libraries and chairman of the committee. “That department was not polled since they already have a background in training in security issues, and the committee wanted to obtain feedback from county employees whose job descriptions were not concerned with that.”
Approximately 250 employees responded to the survey, about half of which have been employed by the county for over 10 years. About 80 percent of respondents were female, and approximately 70 percent were white. More than 60 percent fell into the 40-59 age range.
Bonney went through the survey and offered potential security solutions from the committee, consisting of a dozen county officials and department heads as well as two technical advisers, Tim Fuss at the N.C. Justice Academy and Sheriff’s Office Capt. Eric Pope.
“While less than 10 percent of the employees had witnessed workplace violence, over 60 percent of employees are nonetheless concerned about their potential exposure to violence in the workplace,” Bonney stated, citing the survey results.
A little over 25 percent of respondents indicated they had been harassed by clients, with 5 percent stating they had been assaulted by clients. Over 15 percent said they had requested law enforcement in the past 18 months.
“The perception by the majority of those with experience is that the number of violent clients receiving our services in the past 18 months has either stayed the same or increased,” said Bonney.
Over half said they were concerned about security entering and exiting the workplace. Around 60 percent indicated concerns about parking lot security, with about the same amount saying parking lots lacked adequate lighting.
About one-third of respondents were aware of their workplace’s violence policy, which addresses general problems. Respondents were split on the sufficiency of workplace training. About 60 percent said there were sufficient physical security measures at their worksite. About 35 percent stated they work outside normal business hours.
In addition to the survey, employees were asked for any additional comments they wished to make.
Comments detailed various needs across departments, ranging from metal detectors, guards, better lighting in parking areas, secure doors and swipe cards to security cameras. DSS received the most mentions, however many departments were the subject of comments, including the Tax Office, Veteran’s Service Office, EMS and others.
Security solutions proposed by the committee ranged from no-cost policy implementation and training to more complex recommendations relating to construction and renovation, and potential personnel needs.
Bonney said the committee proposed the establishment of a training program for new employees and refresher training for current employees addressing high-liability policies, policy updates, and safety and security issues. That training would include access control and visitation procedures, active shooter, bomb threat and crime in progress procedures, evacuation and building opening/closing procedures, and training involving off-site visitation and workplace violence.
The development of programs and utilization of existing technology to communicate between departments about criminal activity or hazardous situations is also recommended, Bonney said.
She noted some of the deficiencies in buildings that should be looked at toward better security.
“One of the major problems observed during the survey was that the vast majority of county-owned buildings were designed without consideration of security and safety,” said Bonney. “The lack of security planning in the design phase requires additional expenditures that would not have been necessary had they been mitigated in (that) phase.”
Many of the county’s facilities have “design flaws” created through renovation that prohibit monitoring of hallways.
One low-cost solution would be to place mirrors in public areas to prevent blind spots. Bonney said modifying interior doors and adding a peep-hole to some for added security, would also help.
Outside, area lighting and proper landscaping would assist in deterring any criminal activity, the committee stated.
Bonney mentioned motion-activated flood lighting that could be beneficial on buildings like Cooperative Extension and the Animal Shelter. Such lighting was installed at the Clinton library and made a big difference, she said. The landscaping around the county campus allows concealment of potential perpetrators. Manicuring shrubs and trees, and planting easily maintained trees in the future, would offer a low-cost solution.
“While high-cost, the committee recommends cameras, alarms and monitoring as a priority,” said Bonney, noting the need for interior and exterior video surveillance and a digital video recorder. “This would allow county personnel to monitor public areas more efficiently and address issues before they escalate.”
Duress alarms in particular areas, notably cash processing and reception, would also be beneficial.
“Due to the high volume of clients and the potential for violence at the Department of Social Services (armed security personnel) is recommended as a high priority,” said Bonney. “DSS deals with child custody and visitation issues through Child Protective Services and hearings that involve the denial of benefits. Both create volatile confrontations. The presence of an armed security officer would help deescalate many events, but if violence did occur the immediate intervention by an officer would help contain the situation.”
County manager Ed Causey said one proposal would be to have an officer housed at DSS that would be absorbed in part by the departmental budget, with about 15 to 20 percent of that officer’s time available in other areas of the campus. Such a hire may serve as “a positive deterrent.”
“Whatever measures, programs or personnel decisions are made as a result of this survey, it is recommended that the county establish a program to identify, monitor and address security issues continuously,” Bonney said. “Without proper maintenance and adaptation, security initiatives may fail to address our ever-changing work environment.”
The issue was initially raised last year, in which the potential of having paid personnel on campus was briefly broached. An internal review was conducted. Causey said the goal was to identify issues and ways improvements can be made, knowing well the budgetary issues with which the Board of Commissioners will be dealing.
Mark Strickland, director of the N.C. Justice Academy, commended county officials for looking at risk management and improving security. Many issues are easily fixed, with some problems tended to through better communication and boosting awareness.
Commissioners said employee and client safety was an important issue.
“Social Services is a high-risk place, and we have an open-door policy,” said Commissioner Harry Parker. “Something needs to be done there. With everything that is going on around the world, we should take note. It could very well happen in this little small town. We should look at this seriously.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.