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Vol. 41, No. 4

How safe is your bar? NABE panel shares security tips for offices, special events, and courthouses

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Moving its headquarters a few years ago was mostly a win for the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, according to Zoe W. Linza, the bar’s executive director and current president of the National Association of Bar Executives.

The bar lost its lawyers’ club—a holdover from a bygone era, Linza said—but gained a prime location on the main floor of a building with an adjacent parking lot, making it much more accessible to members … and everyone else.

That last part is why Linza spoke to NABE members, along with John F. Phelps, chief executive officer of the State Bar of Arizona, and Hon. Bertila Soto, chief judge of the Circuit Family Division of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court of Florida. Together, the panelists at NABE’s 2017 Midyear Meeting in Miami discussed how best to address the security concerns that arise from being accessible to the public.

BAMSL manages its streetside view

Not only is BAMSL’s new headquarters on the main floor with an entrance just inside the building, it’s also right by a stop for the city’s MetroBus public transit—and it has windows that the staff can see out of, but that outsiders can’t see into.

The one-way view has led to some incidents, such as when a candidate for a job was unsettled by the sight of a man relieving himself on the window. Linza now makes sure that candidates sit with their backs to the windows during job interviews, and she also reminds the staff that “What happens outside the windows isn’t your responsibility.”

It’s essential to regularly train staff regarding safety and security, Linza added, noting that one important reminder is that staff members shouldn’t be on their phones while they walk to and from their cars. Linza also encourages staff members who work during after-hours events to take advantage of both training and safety escorts that are available in downtown St. Louis.

An incident that causes public outrage—such as the police shooting in nearby Ferguson—may require special training or for the bar office to close for a few days, she said, noting that members of the public sometimes walk in because they don’t realize the bar association doesn’t provide direct legal service.

BAMSL makes use of its building’s lobby for special events—which does sometimes prompt questions about the wisdom of offering free food and alcohol so close to the bus stop. The one-way windows help, and so does hiring off-duty police officers to work those events, Linza said.

The bar has a close relationship with the captain for its police precinct, she noted, thanks in part to a long-standing collaboration on a program that helps the children of slain or wounded police officers. Other security measures include panic buttons at reception, at Linza’s desk, and randomly throughout the office. The building’s security guard sits just 100 feet from the bar’s reception desk, Linza said, with glass that allows an unobstructed view.

Arizona bar secures its special events

Phelps focused most of his comments on providing adequate security at special events, which he said should start with a careful analysis well in advance. Some of the important considerations include:

  • Basic logistics for the event, such as what, exactly, will happen at the event and who will speak and attend. “Sometimes we forget when we invite certain speakers that they’re coming with a security detail,” Phelps noted, adding that it’s important to invite the speaker’s own security staff to come out before the event to check out the location, rather than doing this as people are arriving.
  • Also related to logistics, Phelps asked how many people—whether planning an event or just attending one—actually take the time to walk around the event location and find all the exits. Everyone should take at least the two minutes required to find all the exits in a meeting room, he advised. If you’re in charge of an event, he added, encourage all attendees to do so and to alert staff of special needs that might necessitate an escort in case of emergency.
  • Whether any of the speakers are controversial and likely to draw protesters and/or disruptors. In that case, he said, you may wish to contact your local law enforcement. In most big cities, he added, the police force has an off-duty program through which you can hire an officer for your event. Also important, Phelps said, is to check with the on-site security people whether they will be armed in any way. “Sometimes,” he noted, “it’s just a guy with a clipboard and a flashlight.”
  • Other events that might be occurring in the area at the same time. For example, Phelps said, there could be a protest a couple of blocks away, not related to your event but still able to affect it. Have someone on your staff stay aware of current events in your area, he suggested.
  • The neighborhood where the event will take place, including whether it’s a “transitional” area with a significant homeless population that might be drawn to any refreshments that are in plain view.

Phelps recommended two resources to help address these and other safety and security concerns. First, your local law enforcement agency may have a special actions unit that will come out to do a free risk assessment. Second, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has many online videos and checklists.

Judge urges bars to advocate for court security

“The bars need to back us up,” said Judge Soto, explaining that bar associations should tell members not to be upset if they have to go through the magnetometer rather than being waved through with their membership card, and that they should advocate for increased funding for courthouse security.

“Nobody comes to us happy,” Soto explained, meaning that no one is pleased to be in court—and many people arrive angry, and potentially armed or ready to make things physical.

Soto herself once faced an attack in her chambers by an angry defendant who was armed with nothing other than his handcuffs but was nonetheless able to scratch her bench, knock books off their shelves—and break her corrections officer’s arm. She kept hitting her duress button, but nothing happened—because, she later found out, the connection had been cut off at some point.

Anyone with a panic or duress button should check it monthly, she advised.

As for weapons, Soto said that magnetometers simply aren’t enough to catch all of them, and also to be aware that objects other than guns can be used as weapons. In the month of January, in the Miami-Dade courthouse, 1,000 weapons were seized, she said, and these included screwdrivers, hammers, and containers of flammable liquid. Soto noted that this is just what was found, and that she’s very concerned about what else might have gotten through.

Miami-Dade’s contract is for unarmed security, she added, and there are some courthouses in rural areas of Florida that have no security staff at all.

“These are difficult times that we’re facing,” Soto said, “and no one wants to raise taxes.” The judicial branch in general is given a low funding priority, she believes. And the issue is not just with the legislature, she added: Her courthouse’s disaster plan is three years old, and she has requested an update from the police but has been “put on the back burner.”

Aside from the general dislike toward lawyers and judges, and the resulting low priority placed on their safety, Soto pointed to another problem: the tendency to think about security only in reaction to a bad event that has already occurred.

She reiterated her plea for bar associations to speak up on behalf of the judiciary on the subject of gaps in security. Phrase it in terms of helping to keep the public safe when they’re in court, she recommended—and not in terms of protecting lawyers.

Additional thoughts

During the question-and-answer period, Phelps in particular shared some other security tips. Among them were:

  • Realize that the No. 1 threat in workplace violence is internal (employees and their families, spouses, friends, etc.), not external. Staff members should be encouraged to disclose if they have an order of protection against someone, he said, and photos of that person should be given to reception and to building security. Otherwise, he said, it’s far too easy for the dangerous individual to simply say they’re meeting the staff person for lunch—and be waved right to his or her desk.
  • Consider offering your bar’s parking lot as a space for the police to take a break or to stage arrests, Phelps recommended—and let them know they’re always welcome to come in for a free cup of coffee. One attendee noted that her bar lets police officers use its Wi-Fi, which means there’s almost always an officer or two in the parking lot.
  • Don’t hesitate to offer active shooter drills, even though it might seem as if this could make staff members unnecessarily afraid. In his experience, Phelps said, such training instead helps calm people down.