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Insecure About Safety

Worried about violence, public officials have moved to increase precautions. But often they are constrained by tight budgets and a desire to maintain public access.

October 30, 1998|JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 1995 bombing of the federal courthouse in Oklahoma City rattled Americans and shattered many illusions about the government's ability to protect its citizens. In Los Angeles, the City Council was not immune to the fears--it promptly bought metal detectors to screen for weapons at the doors of its ornate chambers.

But three years later, with the shock of the deadly bombing fading into memory, the safety devices remain in crates in a storage room. To this day, anyone can walk into the City Council chamber with a concealed crowbar, knife or gun.

Such is the ambivalence of public officials in Los Angeles and elsewhere when it comes to balancing safety with freedom and public access. They buy metal detectors. Then they don't use them.

Riverside Shootings Raise Concern Anew

But the issue of safety in public facilities has again been thrust onto the front burner by the alarming shooting that injured six people earlier this month at Riverside City Hall.

A man dismissed from the Parks and Recreation Department, for which he had coached chess part-time, has been accused of storming an unprotected room where several Riverside City Council members and others were meeting. The gunman was finally shot down by police.

Now, Riverside city officials and many other government leaders are renewing discussions about security in public facilities. Although there is a popular consensus that threats of violence are increasing, many other issues complicate talks about how to increase safety.

"It's a tough thing, because we are a public entity and we want to be accessible to the public," said John Ferraro, president of the Los Angeles City Council. "We also have to think about safety, but we also have to consider if [protective measures] will really prevent anyone who is trying to get somebody. And we have to consider cost."

Action Lags at L.A. City Hall

Nowhere is the conundrum more evident then in Los Angeles. Here, council members agreed to spend $11,000 on several metal detectors. But in the three years since, they have never discussed where or when to use the devices.

In the meantime, the mayor and council moved out of the historic City Hall, which is undergoing seismic renovation. The security question "sort of got lost in the shuffle," said Ron Deaton, the city's chief legislative analyst.

After the Riverside shooting, Councilman Rudy Svorinich Jr. asked that the discussion of safety measures be reopened. The review should include a discussion of whether safety devices should be part of the $300-million remodeling of City Hall, which is principally designed to make the structure earthquake safe, Ferraro said.

In the meantime, city lawmakers are not totally unprotected. Visitors must wait to be ushered into council members' locked inner offices. And council members have "panic" buttons at their desks for emergencies.

Los Angeles officials need not look as far as Oklahoma City or even Riverside to be concerned about violence. Three months after the federal bombing tragedy, a disgruntled city electrician shot and killed four supervisors at a downtown yard and warehouse.

Just last month, a security consultant hired after the shooting at the city yard called for security improvements at City Hall and 30 other municipal facilities. Essentially, the report says Los Angeles should depend more on electronic security systems at night, that it should arm some of its uniformed security officers and use a beefed-up safety squad to patrol many outlying buildings.

With a $4.5-million price tag over three years, it remains to be seen whether the City Council will approve the enhancements. At a minimum, Svorinich said, he will push hard to install the closeted metal detectors at City Hall.

Injuries to Bystanders Are Among Concerns

"One of the concerns I have is the innocent bystander or tourist who gets caught in an act of terror," Svorinich said. "What do you tell the family and those who survive an incident like that? That we knew better but chose not to act? I would find that unconscionable."

Another massive and, perhaps, massively under-protected building in downtown Los Angeles is the county's central Superior Court, at 1st and Hill streets.

The sprawling courthouse experienced its own violent episode in 1995 when a Woodland Hills doctor shot his wife to death in a hallway during a break in their divorce proceeding.

In the three years since, court administrators have planned to install metal detectors. They even bought the devices.

But getting the detectors in place has proved far more difficult.

It took court officials nearly three years to find the money for personnel to operate the detectors. It was not until this fall that the state Legislature finally located $8 million needed for more safety employees downtown and at several other courthouses.

But Superior Court officials said the devices at several entrances will be worthless if more than a dozen other doors are not secured in the nine-story courthouse.

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