On the front lines

City beefs up security for its employees

City accounts clerk Anna Carlson sits behind bullet-proof glass on the first floor of the city’s Municipal Center.

City accounts clerk Anna Carlson sits behind bullet-proof glass on the first floor of the city’s Municipal Center.

Photo By tom gascoyne

Anna Carlson, an accounts clerk, works behind a counter on the first floor of the Chico Municipal Center. She collects parking-ticket fines, dog-, bicycle- and business-license fees and charges from other city citations. Friendly and helpful, Carlson’s been on the job for nearly six years.

On a recent afternoon she was helping a woman, recently arrived from Alaska, whose dog had “nipped” a little neighbor girl. A report was made, and Animal Control said the woman needed to get a license for the dog.

Carlson asked if she wanted a two-year tag for $40 or a tag for one year at a cost of $25. The woman thought about the options and then said, “You don’t have to register dogs at all in Alaska. And rabies shots are only $5.” Eventually a decision was made and the woman moved on.

Later that day a man came in to get a city-ordered dog license. That case didn’t go quite as smoothly. The man, in Carlson’s words, “went ballistic” during the transaction.

Because of such aggressive encounters from the public, which remain fairly uncommon, Carlson now works behind a thick wall of bullet-proof glass that protects her and 20 or so other city employees who work in the Finance, Human Resources and Risk Management departments. The glass was installed last November.

“Customers come in and are not happy because they are paying a fee or a tax or a citation,” said Frank Fields, a city accounting manager. “Things get thrown over the counter or there are verbal threats, and we have to get hold of the police to take people out. We’ve talked about it, and it’s just the reality of the situation.”

He said during the 5 1/2 years he’s been on the job the number of incidents has seemed to escalate to one every two weeks or so.

“It’s maybe the economy and that people are in tough situations,” he said. “Still, 98 to 99 percent of the people who come in here are fine, when all is said and done.”

Carlson said she’s also felt the wrath of people with a political agenda walking past her post on their way to the third floor, where offices of the City Council, city clerk, city attorney and city manager are located.

“They will walk past and say something snide or maybe hand us something they’ve written,” she said. “And you try to read it but it makes no sense.”

Carlson said she feels much more secure behind the glass for another reason: In her job she sometimes counts out cash that could be easily grabbed if she were less protected.

Not long before the glass was installed a man paying a parking ticket lost his temper and grabbed the ink pen that is anchored to the counter with a thin metal chain, recalled Sheri Baker, a senior account clerk, who’s worked in the office for 11 years. She said the man threw the pen at Carlson with such force that it broke the chain, flew over her head and landed a good 20 feet behind her, near stunned co-workers.

Assistant City Manager John Rucker said part of the problem stems from those who simply wander into the building.

“We actually have a fairly large population of transients using the facility,” he said. “Some are pretty disturbed. They come in screaming their heads off.”

He said it took three to four years to get the funding for the project. Jessica Henry, an analyst with the Risk Management Department, was in charge of the project and said it cost $25,154.

Rucker said news of shootings in other cities is becoming more common, and as a result security has been beefed up locally.

“We’ve increased it throughout City Hall itself,” he said. “Doors to offices are locked with combination locks. Some employees feel the need to be safer and more secure, while others see it as not a big deal. That causes a conflict. But everybody has to feel safe.

“We hear more and more about workplace violence, and we do have people upset, and we’ve become more acutely aware of it. We don’t know who’s armed with a gun or a knife. There are people who are mentally disturbed these days, and more and more people are looking at and kind of targeting government, vilifying it as evil.”

Rucker said the lobby of the Chico police station was fitted with bullet-proof glass a number of years ago. (In fact it was soon after Sept. 11, 2001.) This also was done out of concern for the safety of the employees working the front desks.

“I’m not so sure it’s a matter of perception versus reality,” Rucker said. “People feel vulnerable.”