‘U,’ City Hall implement additional security measures

Wednesday, August 14, 2019 - 7:01pm

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FILE PHOTO

Visitors to Ann Arbor City Hall last Monday were greeted by a new front desk staffed by an unarmed, private security guard, where they will now need to check in to gain access to the third through sixth floors. Two days later, the University of Michigan began installing door locks to all classrooms and class labs in Mason Hall — the site of a false active shooter scare last semester — as part of a pilot project to enhance security and emergency preparedness campuswide.

Though planned for ahead of time, both projects were coincidentally implemented the week after a string of mass shootings — two less than 24 hours apart in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, and one earlier in the week in Gilroy, Calif.  — in which more than 32 people were killed. 

According to the Gun Violence Archive, as of August 5 there have been 255 mass shootings in the United States this year — a rate of more than one per day. Soon after, the governments of Venezuela and Uruguay and Amnesty International all released travel advisories, warning those visiting the U.S. of the high levels of gun violence.

In response to these national trends, institutions in Ann Arbor are also taking precautions. Though independent of one another, the two back-to-back projects share a common purpose: to protect people frequenting the buildings from violent threats and emergencies as mass shootings become deadlier nationwide. 

University door-lock project

The door-lock project is being led by the Division of Public Safety and Security. Working with a team from the University's Architecture, Engineering and Construction division, DPSS plans to finish the locks by the end of August so the classrooms can still be used in the fall. 

According to a University press release, the pilot project will guide University administration in exploring the scope and process of installing door locks to classrooms campuswide. DPSS Executive Director Eddie L. Washington Jr. noted Mason Hall was chosen as the first location due to its proximity to the Diag.

“The safety of students, faculty, staff and visitors is our top priority,” Washington Jr. said. “This project is part of our broader efforts to continuously identify technology, enhance alerting and implement training to ensure the safety and security of our community.”

In an email to The Daily, University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald explained Mason Hall was chosen as the pilot location in part because it was the site of the scare, but also since it is an LSA and central campus building used by many undergraduates. 

Heather Young, DPSS director of strategic communications, emphasized the decision to implement door locks in Mason Hall is not directly related to the March incident, as she explained talks between LSA and DPSS began in December. 

However, Young explained the locks are meant to help protect individuals in similar situations. 

“If you can’t run, if you don’t have a safe path, you have to find something to keep between you and the threat,” Young said. “It’s much easier to lock and then barricade, because it makes it more difficult for a threat to get in. You should still barricade, because it puts more material between you and a threat, but that lock makes it so much faster.”

LSA junior Basil Alsubee had just spoken at a vigil held on the Diag for victims of the New Zealand mosque shooting when police ran by yelling for people to move. Though the reports of gunfire at Mason Hall were later determined to be balloons popping at a sorority bonding event, Alsubee recalled how he ran into the Law Library to hide as the crowd scattered in confusion and panic. 

After the incident, Alsubee said members of the Muslim community met with University President Mark Schlissel and shared their concerns, one of which being a lack of protocol. Alsubee expressed he believes the addition of door locks are a welcomed step to ensure better emergency preparedness.

“It could add better protocol measures than what we had, because we were barricading doors with tables and books,” Alsubee said. 

In an email to the Daily, another vigil attendee Samer Mahdy Ali, associate professor of Middle East Studies, director of the Center for Middle Eastern & North African Studies and chair of Islamophobia Working Group, agreed with Alsubee that the door locks are a good first step.

“The locks on the doors are a wise defensive measure in the face of the wider societal problems like white supremacy and gun violence at schools, which makes UM a conspicuous target for assailants precisely because we are a symbol of thriving diversity and of America's future,” Ali wrote.

However, Ali wrote he would like to see additional focus on improving communications, which he described as a failure during the shooting scare. In the aftermath of the March incident, many members of the University community reported receiving delayed alerts or none at all and shared concerns about the spread of misinformation. 

Ali explained IWG had engaged in discussion about next steps with DPSS and University administration in March and April and wrote he hopes those conversations will continue in the fall. 

Kinesiology sophomore Brian Heyman hid in the Shapiro Undergraduate Library during the March incident and shared similar concerns. Though he said he thinks the door locks are a positive addition, he believes it is a minimal solution that ignores other problems.

“I think the school alert system has a lot to work on in terms of the hastiness of their response and also the quality of their information that they sent out,” Heyman said. 

According to Young, the University is working on several security measures which have yet to be formally announced, including updates to the University alert system. Young explained DPSS has already purchased Alertus Technologies, a mass notification system, which should go live “very soon.” In addition, Young said DPSS is exploring beacons, desktop alerts and a new vendor for text and email alerts. 

“As threats evolve and as technology keeps constantly improving, we are also seeking to constantly improve,” Young said.

Reflecting on the March incident and the door-lock project, Alsubee linked both to the nation’s struggles with gun violence.

“On that day we thought ‘Oh, we’re in America, it’s a mass shooting,’ so we ran,” Alsubee said. “It’s a sad reality that these measures are necessary.”

Heyman expressed similar sentiments, explaining he believes the increasing need for security measures — including the rise in sales of bulletproof backpacks — should spur urgency in government to enact improved gun regulation.

“It’s ignoring the main issue, and that is guns in the hands of people who should not have them,” Heyman said. “These are small quick fixes, like putting a bandaid on an open wound … The only thing to prevent this epidemic in our country from continuing is to hit it at the root.”

City Hall security-operated front desk

In early June, City Council voted to approve a private security contract with Wyandotte-based Liberty Security Group Inc. after debating the resolution for three weeks. The company’s trained guards greet and direct visitors, control elevator access to the upper floors where many staff work and can activate a panic button in case of emergency. 

The basement and first and second floors, which house the council chambers and the clerk’s office, remain accessible to visitors without checking in. 

In previous meetings, some council members opposed to the contract believed using private, unarmed guards was insufficient. They wanted the city to look into other options, like hiring armed police officers or unarmed police cadets and adding metal detectors, even if these are more expensive. 

Others also in opposition worried the measure would make visitors feel unwelcome or were concerned about bringing in strangers. They wanted the front desk staffer to be a City Council employee, or someone from the community. 

However, days after an employee opened fire at a Virginia Beach municipal building, killing 12 people, City Council upheld the contentious contract after Councilmember Jeff Hayner, D-Ward 1 changed his position and voted in support. 

“The ongoing and mostly current events have had us rethink this,” Hayner said.

According to MLive, a city staff memo from May shows staff have been concerned about security at City Hall. The memo discussed gun violence in general as well as specific incidents at City Hall. 

“In addition to national stories about violence directed against institutions and active shooter issues, we have experienced uninvited persons dominating staff time, persons displaying threatening behavior, and persons in inebriated or incapacitated conditions in city hall, including an incident of drug abuse in a public restroom,” the memo read. 

In an interview with the Daily, Mayor Christopher Taylor explained the front desk is a staff-initiated project. Taylor voted yes on the measure both times when it was before the council. He emphasized that City Hall remains open to the public. 

“Staff welcomes the public into City Hall, and we are still entirely open for business,” Taylor said. “At the same time, it’s important that we maintain a safe and secure environment, both in terms of physical safety and in terms of information security.”

According to Taylor, private, unarmed security guards are the most effective and cost-efficient method to accomplish that goal. To Taylor, City Hall staff or local volunteers are inappropriate as the job requires some training, but he said he believes utilizing police cadets or sworn officers would be an unsatisfactory use of their training. He explained he doesn’t want to under-staff or over-staff the desk.

Councilmember Elizabeth Nelson, D-Ward 4, voted for the contract when it was initially brought to City Council but called for the measure to be reconsidered, saying she planned to rescind her vote. However, Nelson ultimately did not change her vote the second time.

Nelson said in an interview with the Daily she was moved by an internal email to City Council by City Hall staff in support of the measure when voting for the contract the first time. However, in subsequent discussions with her colleagues, Nelson began to worry the city was hiring a “rent-a-cop” and wondered if there was a better method.

After she asked for reconsideration, Nelson said she met with City Hall staff, who explained why they recommended a private, unarmed guard as the best option. According to Nelson, the staff told her the job demanded more hours than a full-time city employee works and was inflexible to time off. On the other hand, city staff were worried that hiring an armed guard could have negative implications on what it means to be in a public space. 

“I was told someone sitting there and paying attention and greeting people will be a huge deterrent to people who might have ideas about bad things to do in the building,” Nelson said. “Every scenario I pitched, there was a reason why it was much better to contract.”

Similarly, Hayner, who voted against the contract the first time, explained in an interview with the Daily he was initially concerned about the cost of what he viewed as hiring a greeter. Like Nelson, Hayner said his thoughts on the measure evolved after meeting with staff. Hayner changed his vote in favor of the private security desk when it was brought before the council again.

“It’s really for everyone’s safety, not just staff,” Hayner said. 

Taylor linked the need for increased security in public spaces to gun violence. 

“America has a problem with guns and gun violence,” Taylor said. “Security of public buildings, security of public places is a result of that. It is a problem that will require cultural change and electoral courage.”

Nelson noted news of the Virginia Beach shooting shifted the tone of City Council’s discussion on the measure.

“It’s so hard living in a town like Ann Arbor because it’s so easy to get lulled into a feeling of ‘We’re different than other places,’” Nelson said. “I think the first discussion of the security desk, it was very much about, ‘What do we need this for?’... Then (after the Virginia Beach shooting), we were talking about, ‘Gosh, is this even enough?’”