- Associated Press - Saturday, September 10, 2016

POTTSTOWN, Pa. (AP) - The circumstances are so horrible, we all know, with just one word, what happened there.

. Columbine - 13 dead.

. Sandy Hook - 26 dead.

. Boston Marathon - 3 dead, 264 injured.

. San Bernadino - 14 dead.

. Orlando - 49 dead.

Mass killings in public places have become a reality in this nation that have changed the way we see the world, live our day-to-day lives and even interact with our local government.

Sensational attacks that capture the public’s attention - that’s almost always why they are perpetrated in public - are often followed by a call for increased security.

It is now a common occurrence for police to stage “active shooter” drills in public buildings; and in addition to the four “Rs” our school children are being taught the basics of “run, hide, fight” when a stranger causes a school lock-down.

Ten years after the 9/11 attacks, federal spending had risen by $110 billion, “while state, local, and private sector expenditures increased by $200 billion more,” according to a 2011 report by The Journal of the NPS Center for Homeland Defense and Security.

It’s similar for the public outcry that follows in the wake of public shootings, said Robert Kagel, director of the Chester County Department of Emergency Services.

The drumbeat for increased security at schools and public buildings became steady after the Sandy Hook school shootings,” said Kagel, who has been in the public safety business for more than 20 years.

Sandy Hook changed everything

“After Columbine, there was a heightened sense about security, but then it faded a bit and evolved into a kind of an ebb and flow,” said Kagel. “After Sandy Hook, there were no more ebbs” about what security precautions public buildings could and should take.

Mark Flanders saw that as Pottstown’s police chief, because at the time he was writing a paper for his masters in police administration on Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold - exploring the question of whether they represented an outlier or the beginning of the new normal.

We now know the sad answer to that question - the reluctant acknowledgement of what Flanders calls “the times we now live in.”

Now Pottstown’s borough manager, Flanders - who was the second commander of the Chester-Montgomery Emergency Response Team after it was formed - says increased security is now a necessity in public places because “there isn’t anything that’s unthinkable any more, not after what happened in Sandy Hook.”

That’s why he was surprised, he said, when Pottstown’s new borough hall was built in 2000 and little security was included in the design for the upper floors.

“We were very thorough in the police area, but I think there was a perception that security was just an issue for the police department,” said Flanders.

More security in borough hall

In the past few years since he retired as police chief and was hired as borough manager, Flanders has instituted more than $30,000 in security improvements to borough hall, including such visible changes as the clear barriers which now separate third- and second-floor workers from the public.

It ruffled some feathers, which did not surprise Kagel, who noted “there is a very delicate balance between the need for a local government to be open and interact with the public, and the need to keep not only the employees but the visitors safe.”

Flanders said the barricade work was spurred by an incident in which a member of the public walked into one of the work areas in borough hall, picked up a worker’s purse of her desk “and started to verbally abuse her.”

In the same vein, Flanders also was sure to ensure that security improvements at Pottstown’s new $4 million Public Works Garage were part of the design of the building, and said security improvements at both the water treatment and wastewater treatment plants are “in the design phase.”

And while so many of the incidents which have spurred this increase in security spending have occurred in schools, Flanders is not out of place in being cautious about securing municipal buildings.

Killings at a town meeting

Three years ago, a disgruntled resident armed with a rifle and hand-gun walked into a meeting of the Ross Township Board of Supervisors in Monroe County and started shooting.

Three people were killed, and in May 2015, the shooter pleaded guilty to homicide and was sentenced to three life sentences, plus 61-to-122 years.

This fall, Ross Township staff are scheduled to move into a brand new municipal building with state-of-the-art security, according to an article in the September edition of Township News, a publication of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors which is devoted entirely to issues of security.

“There was a real spike in security questions after the shooting in Monroe County,” said David Sanko, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors.

“We’ve been hearing from a lot more of our members about security enhancements they’re undertaken, like locking all doors and using cameras and buzzers,” said Sanko who, from 2003 to 2005, was director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency under former Gov. Ed Rendell.

“A lot of townships also have installed bullet-proof glass and panic buttons,” Sanko said.

Many townships are also investing in training, “like self-defense classes and how to avoid confrontations and defuse people’s anger to try to avoid things escalating to the point where you have an active shooter, like in Ross,” he said.

Kagel said his office offers training in something called ALICE - which stands for Alert Lock-down Inform County Execute.

“It provides some basic strategies you can use to prevent panic and decide on a course of action,” he said.

Active-shooter drills

Also more frequent are the high-profile “active shooter drills” in which law-enforcement respond to a situation they believe they may one day face. Schools also undertake these drills, testing staff and student response.

In the last few years, large-scale active shooter drills have taken place at, just to name a few, in Spring-Ford High School in Royersford, Conestoga High School in Berwyn, Montgomery County Community College’s west campus in Pottstown, Eddystone Elementary School in Delaware County’s ridley School District and the Chester County Justice Center in West Chester.

Some drills, said Kagel, are not that expensive, consisting chiefly of police overtime bills, “while I’ve seen others that have exorbitant costs attached to them.”

“I have found in Chester County that so many of the municipal police believe in being prepared that the majority absorb the cost of these drills as part of their training budget,” said Kagel.

While he believes such drills and security measures are necessary, Kagel said he could not point to a single instance in which the lessons learned from an active-shooter drill have come into practice in a local shooting incident.

“That’s the age-old question of the return on investment,” said Kagel. “The challenge to answering that question is we don’t know what we’ve prevented with the training. If someone saw warning signs and thwarted an attack, there’s nothing to measure.”

Kagel’s department, which has an $18.5 million annual budget but spends only about $50,000 to $75,000 a year on active shooter and other training, drew an official commendation from District Attorney Paul Hogan in January for a drill conducted last October in Collegium Charter School in West Whiteland.

Despite the kudos, Hogan told the Chester County Commissioners the exercise was “chaos, full of mistakes,” but added that is the purpose of the drills, to “find out what we need to fix.”

School safety measures

In addition to working with local law enforcement - Kagel singled out the Chester County Sheriff’s office for particular praise - his department also has a safe schools coordinator, Chrissy DePaolantonio, who advises schools on how they can better prepare for and prevent such attacks.

“She is very skilled at harnessing and utilizing existing grant programs,” said Kagel.

For example, DePaolantonio worked with the Chester County Intermediate Unit to provide to all public schools in the county a “Raptor” system that requires all school visitors to get a pass by swiping their driver’s license into a system that conducts an immediate background checks.

Chester County is also working on a way to allow all school security cameras to be hooked into the 9-11 emergency call center, so that dispatchers can inform first-responders about the particulars of an incident as they rush to the scene.

That impressed Flanders, who said the earlier information is provided to police, the more lives can be saved.

“That was part of what we learned from Columbine,” he said. “The thinking at the time was to wait outside until SWAT arrived whereas the policy now is first one there, first one in.”

“Imagine how many lives might be saved if on the way there, officers could be told ‘the shooter is in wing B and you have clear passage all the way to wing B,” Flanders said.

Whether the “run, hide, fight” philosophy being taught to teachers and students saves lives is an open question, Kagel said.

“It’s the current best thinking, and there certainly is an element of common sense to it, but no I can’t point to any studies that prove its more effective than anything else,” Kagel said.

“I know personally, I would rather die fighting or putting my life on the line to save others than just waiting for it to happen,” said Kagel.

Besides training, area schools are now incorporating increased security - security cameras limited access to schools through “secure vestibules,” ID checks.

For example, on Tuesday, students will return to a fully re-furbished Pottsgrove High School, at the end of a three-year $30 million renovation.

David Nester, Pottsgrove business manager, said the district spent $160,000 on new security cameras for the school and another $50,000 on a card-swipe access system for the school.

The new “secure vestibule” was part of and included in the cost of a new addition to the high school, but one installed at Pottsgrove Middle School a few years ago cost $133,000, he said.

Pottsgrove also spent $40,000 on radios district wide and pays the $80,000 a year cost of having a police officer in both the high school and middle schools, he said.

It should be no surprise that such measures are being taken at schools and municipal buildings in all kinds of settings.

“The kind of attack these measures are meant to prevent can happen anywhere,” said Kagel. “It’s not a question of an urban setting or a rural setting.”

“It usually has to do with an individual, what has happened to them, and what their particular breaking point happens to be,” said Flanders.

How far should we go?

There are always further security measures that can be implemented.

Consider what Israel has done.

During the Palestinian Intifada, security in Israel was increased significantly, with armed patrols, metal detectors, and random searches of Palestinians.

The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported that the number of people killed or injured in Israel by terrorists plummeted from 560 in 2005 to 91 in 2014, according to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

But as reporter Kevin Fagan wrote, “it’s difficult, however, to envision an environment in the U.S. in which measures such as arming schoolteachers would be widely accepted. And a system that all but automatically views with suspicion a sub-population such as Palestinians - who view the hyper-vigilance, author Ben Ehrenreich wrote recently in Politico, as “a massive mechanism for the creation of uncertainty, dispossession and systematic humiliation” - could make America something Americans wouldn’t recognize.”





Information from: The Mercury, https://www.pottsmerc.com

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