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Spokane boosts City Hall security with police lieutenant

Spokane police Lt. Rex Olson has been shifted to oversee security at City Hall. He is now stationed at the first-floor security desk. (Dan Pelle)
Spokane police Lt. Rex Olson has been shifted to oversee security at City Hall. He is now stationed at the first-floor security desk. (Dan Pelle)

A Spokane police lieutenant was shifted to City Hall last week to augment contract security guards there.

City administrators say the move has been recommended for years by police, who have analyzed security at city headquarters, a former Montgomery Ward building overlooking Spokane Falls.

But officials only made minor adjustments in security arrangements, in part because of budget concerns.

“We have an obligation, to both the citizens and the employees in the building, to make sure that they’re safe at all times,” City Administrator Theresa Sanders said. “This is just one step in that direction.”

But some City Council members question the move, arguing that the city’s $15.30-an-hour contract with Portland security firm Starplex to provide guards is enough, given the city’s other crime problems. The lieutenant now overseeing security earns more than $130,000 a year.

“I don’t know if when we are so short of police officers in the field that this is really the best use of our current resources,” City Council President Ben Stuckart said.

Various administrations have taken different approaches to security at City Hall. The stairs, for instance, are sometimes open and sometimes closed off to the public based on security concerns or a desire to promote exercise.

Former Mayor Mary Verner beefed up security after someone shot six bullets through a window while City Hall was closed. She closed the third-floor public entrance from the River Park Square parking garage and won support to add private security guards to City Hall. Visitors also started having to sign in.

The Spokane City Council approved a contract with Starplex in 2011 to provide security for City Hall through May 2016. Two guards will remain at City Hall even with the police lieutenant on site.

Condon reopened the third-floor entrance after moving a security guard there. But the stairs are now closed to the public.

The most serious security incident occurred in 1996, when a pipe bomb packed with nails and screws exploded outside City Hall overnight. There were no injuries, but the blast blew out a window and sent shrapnel flying into Riverfront Park. White supremacists were indicted for the crime.

The new officer on site, Lt. Rex Olson, a 39-year veteran of the force, said he is reviewing City Hall security operations. As a police officer, he can take different actions than an unarmed security guard, he said.

“Sometimes, two or three minutes can be pretty critical,” Olson said.

After spending a few days at City Hall, he said it’s clear that police presence is needed. About 7,500 visitors enter City Hall each month, and a few become frustrated in their dealings there.

“Along with emotions sometimes goes their level of good judgment,” Olson said.

Condon said Olson was chosen because he already is the “public face of the police department at City Hall.” He works with neighborhood leaders, manages the department’s speakers’ bureau and senior volunteers, and performs other duties – some of which he’ll continue to perform, Condon said.

“He’s that perfect fit to make sure that we communicate with the public, have a presence of openness at City Hall,” Condon said. “He balances it well.”

Condon said his staff will work to make sure City Hall remains a welcoming place.

“It is a balance between opening City Hall and maintaining the security of your employees,” he said.

But Councilman Jon Snyder said the shift may not be the best use of resources.

“I wonder, with so many other public safety needs in the city, if that’s really a priority,” Snyder said.



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