Short Fuse

Early one crisp March morning in 1995, Ernest J. Cooper strode into a Navy manager's 10th-floor office and shot him twice with a .45-caliber handgun loaded with pellet cartridges. Co-workers at the Naval Air Systems Command cowered behind locked office doors in the Crystal City, Va., building as Cooper continued to the next cubicle. There, he pumped four more shots into a Navy commander. Cooper then killed himself with a shot to the head. The manager, hit in the neck and lower back, lost a kidney, but recovered. The commander suffered flesh wounds.

Co-workers told FBI agents and local police they knew of no bad feelings among the men, according to the Washington Post. "There was no more tension than in any office when you're under pressure to do a job well with downsizing," said one employee. Cooper, a retired Air Force officer, had worked at the Naval Air Systems Command for nine years and was said to be preparing for a new work assignment. A neighbor speculated the job change and transition from military to civilian life may have played a role in Cooper's actions, though Cooper rarely complained about work.

Federal workplace violence isn't confined to angry postal employees anymore. Today violence can hit any agency any day from any quarter for a growing laundry list of reasons. Customers erupt when service is too slow or benefits are cut. Angry citizens find government a large, enticing target for their frustrations. Crime seeps from city streets onto federal property and into federal buildings. Staff cuts and efforts to reinvent and reengineer operations without adding resources erode morale and eat away at employees' confidence.

No one will ever know whether Cooper's pending reassignment, staff cuts at his agency or a plan to move the command out of Crystal City played a role in his actions. But stress from downsizing and restructuring is a potential source of violence among workers, according to many experts.

"People can't work as fast as organizations make changes," says Anthony Baron, a violence prevention expert whose San Diego-based firm, the Baron Center, counsels federal agencies. "There's a greater sense of urgency. You cannot reengineer unless you re-humanize. Leadership has to recognize what the limits are."

Lisa Teems, who heads the Health and Human Services Department's workplace violence task force, says her organization has changed in recent years. "It's not only downsizing, it's shifted responsibilities. People are asked to do more with less. Morale is bad and that contributes to irritability."

Recognizing that stress can escalate into other problems, some agencies have begun accounting for it in their anti-violence plans. The Centers for Disease Control, for example, has a violence prevention policy that calls on supervisors to be sensitive to workplace stress and consider changes to alleviate it.

At Disproportionate Risk

Simply easing federal workers' stress won't eradicate the violence they face. The April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, subsequent bomb threats and antigovernment plots, along with growing danger from angry customers and criminals show federal employees are at increasing risk of violence from the people they serve. The American Society for Public Administration acknowledged as much in July, when it passed a resolution citing growing risks to public workers from street crime and family violence, domestic and international terrorism, increased conflict among employees and between employees and clients, and negative attitudes toward government held by extremist groups and large numbers of the general public. The organization endorsed zero tolerance for violence against public employees.

Violence is not endemic to federal offices, though it sometimes seems that way. "Every time it happens in government it gets high visibility. I have a lot of corporate clients that have incidents of violence but they don't hit the papers and [CEOs] don't have to go before Congress, " says Dale Masi, professor at the University of Maryland Graduate School of Social Work in Baltimore and president of Masi Research Consultants, a violence prevention firm. In fact, each year nearly 1 million Americans are assaulted while working or on duty, according to the Justice Department. On average, 20 workers are murdered and 18,000 are assaulted each week.

Although government workers make up just 18 percent of the workforce nationwide, 30 percent of the assaults occurred among state, local and federal government employees. The presence of police in the government category only partially explains civil servants' disproportionate share of workplace violence. Today the core jobs of the civil service-helping the public and delivering benefits-are among the top risk factors for workplace violence.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in 1992, the majority of workplace assaults-64 percent-occurred among workers serving the public. Most attacks came in nursing homes (27 percent), social service agencies (13 percent), and hospitals (11 percent). With the increasingly geriatric nature of medical care in the Department of Veterans Affairs, the vast array of social services federal agencies deliver, and the large number of employees in National Institutes of Health, Indian Health Service and VA hospitals, it's clear that federal workers hold more than their share of high-risk jobs.

Most federal occupations are at lower risk than private-sector occupations for murder, the No. 2 cause of work-related death in the United States in 1995, according to BLS. Despite the attention given to postal killings, the jobs with the highest murder rates are taxi driver, law enforcement officer and retail worker. Federal workers nonetheless hold the distinction of being targets not because they work alone, handle money or deal with criminals, but simply because of public antipathy toward their employer. The Oklahoma City bombing, in which 90 federal workers perished, accounted for 12 percent of 1995's workplace murders, and nearly a third of the year's 299 federal workplace fatalities.

No More Santa Claus

Changes in government services and benefits also imperil civil servants. For years, Social Security Administration claims representatives have suffered a steadily rising level of abuse. Customers have punched through walls, thrown computers, cursed and assaulted employees, and threatened to stalk and kill representatives. In June and July, Social Security staffers and customers were held hostage in offices in Santa Cruz, Calif., and Pasadena, Texas.

"I think people are more desperate. It seems people are more aggressive than they were and more willing to challenge government," says Ron Rutkowski, manager of the Utica, N.Y., SSA office and head of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations' New York Region.

Managers say problems in walk-in offices have increased noticeably since drug addicts and alcoholics on disability-related Supplemental Security Income (SSI) received benefit cutoff notices in June. "We've had a lot of disruptive claimants shouting, occasionally cursing, most commonly tied to no longer being eligible for benefits or checks being late," says Rosemary Martelli, SSA district manager in San Jose, Calif.

"The frequency, if not the intensity, of incidents has increased significantly in the last year, in my opinion, as a result of the drug and alcohol legislation." The agency beefed up security in most offices this year when the notices went out, and SSA is discussing further measures as it looks ahead to drug and alcohol benefit cutoffs in January. At that time, about one-fourth of alcoholics and addicts currently on SSI rolls are expected to drop off.

SSA has been meeting with its union, the American Federation of Government Employees, to prepare for additional SSI cutoffs resulting from welfare reform. In January, the agency will begin notifying parents of some children on disability SSI that the youngsters no longer qualify. Tighter rules disqualify children with "what some people consider more mild behavioral problems," says SSA spokesman Thomas Margenau. Some 185,000 children will be cut off. Then, in March 1997, approximately 500,000 noncitizens legally in the United States will be told they no longer are eligible for SSI. Most of those whose benefits are to end are poor and rely heavily on SSI. Many managers expect a desperate and angry response.

Dealing with unhappy claimants and the threat of violence takes a toll on SSA employees, but so does the radical change in their role. "This will be the first time where many of our employees will have to deal with a cut in benefits," Margenau says. In the past, most new legislation expanded Social Security rolls. "If you were hired to process payments and now your job is going to be telling people there ain't no Santa Claus, it can't help but affect people," adds Don Seatter, SSA district manager in South Carolina and president of the SSA Management Associations Council.

Location, Location, Location

It's not only agencies' missions that place employees in the line of fire, it's their location, as well. Disputes over land use are pitting federal workers against ranchers and local officials in the West. Street crime is encroaching on federal facilities located in high-crime areas. Employees' cars are stolen; they stumble upon drug deals in agency parking lots. The Social Security Administration has even published a handbook telling workers how to avoid becoming carjacking victims.

Even off site, workers are in danger. "I've consulted with [IRS]. Their people get attacked-the people who go out to place liens, handle nonpayment of taxes," Masi says. Letter carriers in the Los Angeles area are robbed so often that the postal service employee assistance program there runs support groups for crime victims. "We're down to 100-plus robberies a year; we were up to 200," says Los Angeles postal EAP coordinator David Parker. "They're almost always robbed at gunpoint. For some it's their third or fourth time."

Crimes are also growing more common at Veterans Affairs Department medical centers and cemeteries, according to John Baffa, the VA's deputy assistant secretary for security and law enforcement. VA cemeteries are no longer open 24 hours a day due to crime problems, Baffa says. "If you want to go someplace quiet where there's not a lot of traffic, you'd go to a cemetery." Police have caught people defacing grave markers and stealing the brass plates from them.

VA health care workers always have faced violence from mentally disturbed, traumatized or substance-abusing patients. The VA has patient response teams and its own police force to handle such incidents. But VA police can't carry guns, except at five locations pilot-testing the effects of armed officers. Meanwhile, unarmed VA police confront armed assailants with some frequency. A weaponless officer was shot and killed by a patient at the Albuquerque, N.M., VA hospital in January. "We have 169 [medical] facilities in 165 different geographical locations from the inner city to the rural countryside," Baffa says. "We had 31,000 disturbances last year-everything from verbal threats to bomb threats. All we're doing is getting the overspill of what's going on in the community surrounding us. The biggest problem is people who shouldn't be there. It's not the employees, it's not the patients, it's the environment."

Workers with the Forest Service, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management report similar problems. More and more visitors to national parks, forests and refuges engage in criminal activities. Public lands are often used for illegally cultivating marijuana, for example. Some growers use booby traps and weapons to protect their crops from rangers and law officers.

Anti-Government Fervor

In recent years, ranchers, miners, county officials and right-wing militia members have brought new forms of violence to Western states where the federal government owns vast expanses of land. Western counties passed ordinances asserting that they, not Washington, controlled such lands. Local officials and land users cited these ordinances as they threatened federal land managers, disobeyed their orders and barred them from federal lands. Forest Service offices were bombed in New Mexico and Arizona; fires were set at Bureau of Land Management facilities in California and Nevada; a Labor Department mine inspector and his wife were injured in a car bombing in California.

The actions of those in the land movement and right-wing militias "all to a different intensity come from some wellspring of anti-government fervor," says Peter Coppelman, the Justice Department's deputy assistant attorney general for environment and natural resources. A two-pronged assault by Justice officials on the county supremacy movement seems to have reduced the incidents. The department won federal and state court rulings against the ordinances and brought civil actions against those who conducted illegal activities on federal land.

Nevertheless, anti-government threats continue. In October, federal agents and local police arrested five members of the West Virginia Mountaineer Militia on charges they planned to blow up the FBI's national fingerprint records complex. Just days earlier, officers and agents took into custody three men suspected in bombings and bank robberies near Spokane, Wash. Notes from the Phineas Priesthood, an anti-government, white supremacist group, were left at the crime scenes. Several IRS service centers also have received bomb threats in the past year.

What Managers Can and Can't Do

Federal managers can do little to prevent political violence and must leave such cases to law enforcement agencies. The Justice Department has formed a task force including members of its Criminal, Civil Rights, Environment and Tax divisions as well as U.S. attorneys and the FBI to respond to domestic terrorism and the threat to federal employees. The Federal Protective Service significantly tightened federal building security after the Oklahoma City bombing. FPS and the U.S. Marshals Service publish handbooks and advise agencies and employees about reducing the spillover of street crime into federal facilities, handling bomb threats and preventing office thefts.

Managers can assist law enforcement officers by making them familiar with office settings, routines and clientele. Encourage officers to visit, experts advise. Let them know when vulnerable clients, such as elderly or disabled people, are scheduled for appointments. Get to know officers and ask them to regularly conduct crime prevention training and office reviews.

When dealing with workplace violence, agencies often fail to take advantage of institutional violence-prevention knowledge and expertise, says Mary Tyler, a member of the Office of Personnel Management's interagency working group on workplace violence. Tyler addressed an Oct. 18 workplace and domestic violence conference hosted by the Labor Department in Washington. "Most organizations have most of what they need but they don't know it, because it requires cooperation between groups that don't really talk to each other-for example, medical and security people, or managers who don't talk with the employee assistance program." Build an anti-violence network within your agency, Tyler advised. "Rather than hiring a consultant, make friends with your colleagues, identify what they know. Don't pay a consultant for a speech the chief of security could have done."

Tyler said managers and executives should avoid getting caught up in the emotion surrounding sensational acts of workplace violence such as murders and bombings. Instead they should survey the real risks in the offices they run. Tyler suggested asking questions like these: "Is our mission unpopular? Do our employees visit people's homes? Are we in a high-crime neighborhood? Abusive spouses can come into the workplace; are we prepared?"

Managers who follow Tyler's advice often are surprised at the results. "The most common problem is the workplace bully," Tyler said. "They're frightening their colleagues, but no one knows what to do." The answer, she said, isn't fancy videos, lectures or teaching employees a profile of the violence-prone person. Most experts warn against profiles, which usually describe male loners, who are intense, served in the military, like guns and are in their 40s. "If we applied the profile to our 800,000 employees, probably 120,000 would fit it," said Bradley Johnson, postal service employee relations specialist, who also spoke at the Labor Department conference.

"Workplace violence should not become an excuse for witch hunting," wrote Tia Schneider Denenberg and Richard Denenberg in "Dispute Resolution and Workplace Violence," an article in the Jan.-March 1996 issue of Dispute Resolution Journal. "The focus must be kept strictly on behavior, rather than suspicions, psychiatric diagnoses, or off-putting personal characteristics." The best way to keep the focus on behavior is basic managers' training, Tyler emphasized. "[Managers] are supposed to manage performance problems," she said. "If an employee's behavior changes suddenly, encourage the employee to get help from the [employee assistance program]. You don't have to diagnose the problem. That very basic stuff would prevent most workplace violence."

Executives and managers should focus not on quickly setting violence-prevention policies, but on slowly surveying risks, communicating with colleagues, making sure supervisors do their jobs, ensuring employees know to whom to report threats and problems, and guaranteeing action on those reports. After those steps have been taken, it's time to roll out a high-profile, common-sense anti-violence policy.

As for the possibility of violence during downsizing, Tyler believes the answer is humane handling of layoffs. "Productive, longtime employees are not going to start attacking us, and if we treat them like criminals, it's just going to add to their pain." The violence potential will be low, she believes, if managers look after the job-finding and emotional needs of downsizing victims. "You can't take a scared, upset person and throw them at a computer," Tyler said. OPM assigns peer counselors to each person losing a job. These mentors check in daily, encouraging, providing resources and consoling. Tyler also urged extra attention for downsizing survivors: special training in working in teams and getting along with new people, for example. "A good workplace violence program must build on organizational strengths, pull in everybody so they all know what to do, and focus on community, communication and respect for individuals."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec