The State Worker

San Bernardino shooting raises security questions: How safe is my state building?

A firefighter extinguishes flames from a big rig that crashed into the south steps of the Capitol and burst into flames on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2001. The driver was killed in the crash, which took place just as the Assembly was adjourning for the night. The crash prompted security upgrades at the Capitol.
A firefighter extinguishes flames from a big rig that crashed into the south steps of the Capitol and burst into flames on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2001. The driver was killed in the crash, which took place just as the Assembly was adjourning for the night. The crash prompted security upgrades at the Capitol. Sacramento Bee file

This week’s San Bernardino shooting raises again grim questions about security that resonate in Sacramento, where state government controls nearly three dozen office buildings and rents millions of square feet more.

In the aftermath of a bloodbath that left 14 people dead and 21 wounded, it’s natural to ask: How safe are workplaces that serve the public? How much security should separate the agents of government from the governed?

“It’s an age-old conflict,” said Richard D. Sem, president and CEO of Sem Security Management, based in Burlington, Wis. “You want the open and welcome culture, but you have to protect your people.”

34Number of state-owned buildings in Sacramento area

The San Bernardino social services center thrust into this week’s grisly headlines was not a government office structure per se, but most of the victims and one of the suspected assailants were county employees. The building housed a state-contracted nonprofit that serves residents with developmental disabilities. On Wednesday, county health department staff were using a room for a party just before the attackers raked it with bullets.

Building safety has been an issue for decades in the capital region, where the state occupies 16 million square feet of office space, roughly half of it in 34 government-owned buildings with varying degrees of security. About 78,000 employees spend their working lives there. Over the years, officials have steadily increased security, often in response to tragic events.

“We’ve tightened up quite a bit since 9/11,” said Sgt. Janet Lockhart of the California Highway Patrol’s Protective Services Division, including wider use of bulletproof glass, electronically secured doors, security posts around buildings and ongoing assessments to catch vulnerabilities.

Some DMV field offices have open service counters and a security guard. At the other end of the spectrum, CalPERS requires anyone attending its monthly board meetings to pass through a metal detector under the watchful eye of armed Highway Patrol officers. The Capitol has similar security measures, plus a barricade around its perimeter and officers on horseback who patrol the grounds.

State Department of General Services spokesman Brian Ferguson said that a building’s level of security is based on the needs of its tenants and the facility’s structure and location. Do the employees interact with the public face-to-face? With other state employees? Both?

“A DMV in Inglewood may have very different needs and procedures than a courthouse in San Francisco,” Ferguson said.

According to General Services, metal detectors were first installed in state facilities and courthouses during the turbulent 1970s. The following decade, Americans coined the term “going postal” after an angry Oklahoma mail worker killed 14 colleagues and wounded six before turning his gun on himself.

Around that same time, government agencies nationwide, including California, installed bulletproof glass and shatter-resistant window film, mostly for first-floor offices and public counters.

A DMV in Inglewood may have very different needs and procedures than a courthouse in San Francisco.

Brian Ferguson, Department of General Services spokesman

State security ramped up again after a gunman in 1993 overpowered security staff and took hostages at the Board of Equalization tower in downtown Sacramento. He died in a shootout with police on the 18th floor.

State law enforcement officials soon recommended posting security guards at some government buildings and upgrading other safety measures. The Board of Equalization hardened its tower’s security. Today, the main floor remains publicly accessible, but visitors reach the upper floors with an escort only after checking in with security staff posted behind thick glass.

Then in 2001, the state government debate over workplace safety vs. public access turned sharply on two events.

In January of that year, a suicidal trucker rammed his big rig into the Capitol’s south portico, sparking a fire that caused more than $16 million in damage. It also effectively ended years of legislative arguments over whether perimeter security was worth ruining the historic statehouse’s picturesque views and inviting posture.

“We wanted to make sure the public had access,” said former lawmaker Dennis Cardoza, who helped plan Capitol security measures after the crash. “At the same time, we knew that external threats were just going to continue and, frankly, I think they’ve escalated since that time.”

Capitol work crews in 2006 finished installing a barrier around the grounds made of metal cable and posts largely obscured by hedges, concrete planter boxes and benches. New pavilions at the Capitol’s north and south entrances opened with equipment to screen visitors for weapons.

Eight months after the fiery Capitol crash, terrorists used three passenger jets as missiles to attack New York City and Washington, D.C. Passengers forced down an airliner on a fourth suicide mission. The 9/11 attacks brought the nation’s air transportation system to a standstill, raised security concerns to new heights and spurred new public safety measures around the country and in California.

“Some measures are visible,” the CHP’s Lockhart said, “and some aren’t.”

The CHP also has ramped up workplace training that emphasizes employees contribute to their own security by being vigilant, she said.

“If you see something, say something,” Lockhart said. “I think people don’t want to cry wolf. ... But they shouldn’t be afraid if they see something suspicious. They should make a call.”

What law enforcement officials potentially confronted in San Bernardino was a mass shooting that blended the murderous intent with inside knowledge and the planning and resources of a terrorist, experts said.

One of the shooters was a county worker who reportedly left the party but returned with his wife to spray up to 75 rounds into the room before fleeing.

“Buildings are as safe as terrorists perceive them to be,” said Michael O’Neil, a former New York Police Department counterterrorism officer and CEO of consulting firm MSA Security. “No matter what, you are not going to eliminate risk.”

Jon Ortiz: 916-321-1043, @TheStateWorker Jim Miller of the Bee Capitol bureau contributed to this report.

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