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Vol. 29, No. 6

Safety first? Bars balance security and mission

by Robert J. Derocher

Sandra Cousins remembers plenty of details from the time eight years ago when an upset man with a loaded gun strode into Tulsa County Bar Association headquarters in downtown Tulsa, Okla., demanding to see a lawyer.

One detail, though, escapes her.

“ ‘What kind of gun did he have?’ ” she recalls someone asking her after the startling incident.

Her deadpan reply? “It was a big gun.” That was all she needed to know.

Cousins, the bar’s executive director, successfully steered the gun-toting man to a lawyer without incident. Not long afterward, she scored another success by lobbying the bar to install a panic button at the association’s front desk that ties directly into the Tulsa Police Department.

“Probably 99.9 percent of the time, people will walk right into the attorney’s office with no problems,” she says.

It’s that remaining one-tenth of one percent, though, that concern Cousins and other bar staff.

While the instances of bar association staff or members facing armed or dangerous people are probably few, there is still a need for preparation. From code words to alarms to mirrors, there are several things that associations are doing and can do to make their workplace more secure—particularly from a public that often doesn’t hold lawyers, and the people who work for and with them, in particularly high regard.

Do a security audit

The first place to consider starting to assess security risks is with a security audit, usually by an outside professional, says Jeff Rose, Workplace Violence Consultant for the Utah Division of Risk Management and a developer of security programs and safety procedures for state judges.

“A bar association has to look at itself as a private business,” he says. “[A security plan] has to work within what the bar association does. You have to balance it with cost.”

As a “business” that has a customer service orientation, bar associations need to be approachable to the public, Rose says. But that does not mean security needs to be sacrificed in the process. Staying safe is particularly a struggle, he adds, for nonprofit groups that typically do not have a lot of resources to expend on security.

“I can come in and make a fortress, or I can make something workable and flexible,” he says, stressing again that the security plan must fit the bar’s overall purpose.

One of the first steps in reviewing a bar’s security precautions is to see where the association is located, according to Rose. “Most people who feel wronged by the courts tend to strike out at the courthouse,” he says. “Most people are not going to know who the bar association is. Being in or near the courthouse is going to draw attention to you.”

That is what Diane O’Steen, executive director of the Atlanta Bar Association, discovered when the bar was located in a downtown Atlanta court complex. “Legal Aid was across the street, and people would go from one place to the next,” she says.

After several run-ins with intoxicated people, a stalking incident, and, in one instance, being threatened by a woman with a shoe, O’Steen was happy when the bar moved to an office complex over a shopping mall away from downtown. Since then, there have been virtually no incidents. “Location really makes a difference,” she says.

Have a plan

Most bar associations don’t want—and can’t afford—a fortress. But one thing they can and should do, Rose and others say, is to develop a security plan to be used if confronted by a violent or dangerous person.

“We have a plan, we’ve discussed it in detail, and we go over it three or four times a year,” says Connie Pruitt, executive director of the Hillsborough County Bar Association in Tampa, Fla.

Office doors are kept open as much as possible, so employees will be able to hear if the bar’s receptionist encounters any possibly dangerous situations. If a situation does arise, Pruitt’s role is usually to divert the aggressor while designated office members contact the building’s security staff. Fortunately, she says, no one has ever displayed a weapon in the office.

Like the Hillsborough bar, employees at the Atlanta bar keep office doors open whenever possible, according to O’Steen. The bar’s receptionist is also armed with a code for help. If the receptionist tells a bar staffer, “The package is out front,” that means there is a problem, and everyone but one person comes out front in a show of strength to discourage any violence, she says. The one remaining person’s job is to call building security.

And in an effort to address employee workplace violence, the bar clearly prohibits employees from bringing guns, knives, and other weapons into the office, she adds.

At the Tulsa bar, Cousins’ brush with danger led to the installation of a knee-activated panic button under the receptionist’s desk. Bars in San Diego, Lancaster, Pa., and Columbus, Ohio, have similar buttons.

In the case of Tulsa, the button immediately alerts city police. It has been used just once in about eight years, when an intoxicated person refused to leave, Cousins says. Police responded in just a few minutes.

Undaunted by her encounter, Cousins also actively talks to potentially volatile people in an attempt to defuse situations as part of the bar’s security plan. “You have to have a sense of humor with it,” she says. “You have to stay calm and just let people talk.”

That’s just what she did with the man who had a gun. “I got a very nice thank-you letter from him later on,” she laughs.

Limit the walk-in crowd

A potential threat that Cousins faces is one that many other bars have dealt with differently. The Tulsa bar’s lawyer referral services are open to the public, allowing people to walk in off the street to find an attorney. Some other bars don’t allow people to walk in and see an attorney—even if they’re in the office.

“When someone does walk in, we indicate they must access the service by phone, and we direct them to a phone in our building lobby,” says Alex Lagusch, executive director of the Columbus Bar Association. “The phone allows you to control the interaction.”

O’Steen says she will occasionally send letters to local courts, Legal Aid, and other organizations if they refer walk-ins to the bar. “I remind them that we are not equipped to take walk-ins,” she says.

Pruitt says that if someone walks in and asks to see an attorney, any doors to LRS operations that might be open are immediately closed, and the person is given a card that gives the LRS telephone number.

Cousins had hoped to persuade her members to adopt a similar non-walk-in approach as well, but “our attorneys don’t like it that way,” she says.

And while she was happy to have the panic button installed, and there have been no serious incidents since her last encounter, Cousins knows there’s always that tenth of a percent chance that something might happen.

—By Robert J. Derocher


Planning tips

Want to make your workplace secure? Workplace security consultant Jeff Rose offers some suggestions on what to consider when developing a workplace safety plan.

Training. Dealing with the public requires a special combination of customer service and security. Staff members need to know the best ways to defuse a potentially explosive situation and what to do to prevent a situation from getting out of hand.

Office/building layout. Look at how the office and facility are set up. Who is responsible for building security, and what are their procedures?

Discussion. Talk to the people who are in the building on a regular basis. They have a good idea of where and how potential security and safety problems can flare up.

The “Bond technique.” As in Bond, James Bond. There are plenty of high-tech tools available to make things more secure, such as portable alarms and hidden cameras. They can be expensive, though, which means the risks should be looked at carefully before investments are made.