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Town explores office safety

Aftermath of Nevada City rampage has Truckee looking at prevention

By DARIN OLDE, Sierra Sun

The tragedy that struck a Nevada County health office and a nearby restaurant in Grass Valley last week, leaving three dead and two injured, heightens awareness of the compromise between workplace safety in government offices and personal contact.

Scott Harlan Thorpe, a psychiatric patient with Nevada County Mental Health, has been charged with killing two women who worked in the mental health office in Nevada City, and the manager of a nearby restaurant. He was arraigned last Friday.

While the event has charged some to question the efficacy of current protection systems, county managers also say putting bullet-resistant glass and security guards between social workers and their patients further divides critical relationships and undermines the point of having social and mental service agencies.

Barbara Green, who was recently elected to the Nevada County Board of Supervisors 5th District seat, said government agencies have been criticized because they aren’t closer to the people.

“Creating isolation and separation is something that alienates people,” she said Wednesday. “There are crazy people out there. You just can’t predict what paranoid people are going to do.”

The tragedy in Nevada City is immeasurable, but perhaps one of the few things that can result, says Nevada County Risk Manager Meg Christianson, is to review emergency action plans and reconsider the balance between security and vulnerability, to learn and make changes.

Just how common are issues of workplace violence in Truckee and how effective is the security system?

According to Capt. Gary Jacobson of Nevada County Sheriff’s Office, there have been no incidents of workplace violence at the Nevada County Superior Court building in Truckee in several decades.

“But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen,” he said. “Any community is susceptible.”

Two months ago the court received a telephoned bomb threat that led to evacuation of the entire building. No bomb was ever found, and no suspect was charged for the crime.

The event heightened concerns over the vulnerability of all the county agencies located in one building. Mental health, child protection, children’s network, women’s services, probation, the district attorney, the clerk’s office, the court and more are all in the same building on Levon Street.

There is only one metal detector at the entrance to the main courtroom on the first floor. The metal detector, however, is not always staffed, and does not prevent people with weapons from entering legal proceedings at the informal courtroom on the second floor or the other agencies.

Some wonder whether a metal detector at the front entrance, and locking other outside entrances, would be better, and whether or not bullet-resistant glass should be installed at reception areas. Others complain the locks on the doors separating reception staff from the public need to be upgraded.

Capt. Jacobson said cases in the second floor courtroom have a very low probability for turning violent. A bailiff is still present for each hearing in both rooms, a security feature implemented only eight to 10 years ago according to Nevada County Sgt. Bill Butler. Previously, bailiffs were only present for criminal hearings.

“We are making security improvements up there,” said Dennis Cassella, director of general and emergency services with Nevada County. “But we don’t exactly reveal what the security improvements are.”

Cassella said there are alarms, and that some windows in the courtroom have been hardened, or equipped with bullet-resistant glass. He added he will be meeting with professional security consultants to determine what additional safeguards can be used.

“Most of the social service offices are highly people-oriented. If you can’t reach the people it puts the staff at a loss and alienates the individual,” he said.

Social workers in one office, who refused to be named for this story, said they felt comfortable with the security in the county building.

“Of course, we’re uncomfortable (about Nevada City), but are we paranoid, are we going to quit our jobs? No. No one is ever completely safe,” said one employee.

Violent outbreaks like the one in Nevada City are largely unpredictable, which is one of the reasons risk management planners like Meg Christianson and law enforcement officials cannot prevent it from occurring. The emergency action plan and evacuation plan, which Christianson said is under review, simply can not encompass every situation.

“We have a meeting Thursday to review our emergency action plan,” Christianson said from her office in Nevada City Friday. “The plan is pretty much the same for every building … they are somewhat general because each department deals with different kinds of issues. Each office has more specific plans that provide guidelines appropriate for their situations.”

Town of Truckee Manager Steven L. Wright said the town has not experienced workplace violence issues to date, but he has taken action to safeguard his staff in the event that it does happen. Supervisors with the Town of Truckee go through workplace violence prevention training programs, and Wright anticipates the new Police Chief Dan Boon will determine whether additional training or coordination with the county is required.

“I don’t think any of our services are perfect, but I don’t think anybody’s are,” Christianson said. “But we will be reassessing our security after this.”

Capt. Jacobson and some of his staff attended funeral services Tuesday for acquaintances and friends of the Nevada City tragedy.


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