Security Issues Gain Focus at Orange County Civic Center

A woman walks through the Orange County Civic Center.

Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

A woman walks through the Orange County Civic Center.

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Security at Orange County’s civic center is coming under focus by county leaders, amid recent concerns about safety around government buildings there.

The recent assault of a county employee outside the county Hall of Administration, among other incidents highlighted by the county’s main workers’ union, prompted the county’s top executive to remind employees of new and existing safety measures at the Civic Center.

And attendees of county Board of Supervisors meetings will be required to go through a metal detector and submit their bags for search starting next week, after a recommendation from the federally-funded Orange County Intelligence Assessment Center.

“I think when we come in here and do our business and we’re focused, we need to be focused on the business of the county and not on our personal safety or the safety of our employees,” county supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer said earlier this month, in justifying heightened security measures for board meetings.

“We have done a lot to improve safety outside these walls of the Hall of Administration. But it’s clear given a recent number of incidents and concerns of our loyal county employees, that they are concerned about safety,” said Spitzer, before directing acting county CEO Frank Kim to prepare a memo summarizing the county’s efforts on that front.

In his Feb. 19 memo, which was sent to all county employees, Kim said the county’s efforts included setting up a non-emergency hotline for issues in the Civic Center, along with “initiating escort protocol for employees to be walked to and from vehicles.”

Other steps include improving lighting in the Civic Center, conducting employee safety trainings and reviewing patrol levels by Santa Ana police and county sheriff’s staff, he wrote.

(Click here to read Kim’s memo.)

The response came on the heels of a letter from the county’s main union noting an attack last month on a county employee, who was reportedly hit on the head by a homeless woman while leaving work.

“Recent incidences of violence due to the growing homeless population in the Civic Center have endangered the safety of our members and have caused significant anxiety and hardship for County workers,” wrote Jennifer Muir, assistant general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, in a Feb. 6 letter to county supervisors.

In late December, according to the union, a homeless person stabbed another homeless person outside the county Hall of Administration, with the victim left critically injured.

And last summer, a homeless man in the Civic Center threatened to rape an employee, Muir wrote in her letter.

County officials haven’t done “nearly enough to keep our members safe and address the issues that continue to grow,” Muir wrote, also referencing concerns over “the presence of urine, rodents and widespread drug use” in the Civic Center.

“It’s also critical that enforcement is stepped up in the area, especially when employees are coming and going to work,” she added.

“Employees deserve to feel safe when they come to work, and right now, they don’t.”

(Click here to read the union’s letter.)

Meanwhile, the county sheriff’s department, which provides the escorts, says it’s not a new service.

“There is no escort program.  It’s just the typical security we provide at county buildings for county employees,” said Lt. Jeff Hallock, the department’s chief spokesman.

It’s unclear whether employees are making more use of escorting now.

Hallock said the department’s manager for the Civic Center told him he hasn’t noticed an increase recently.

As for the review of patrol levels, Hallock said he didn’t know what its status is.

Santa Ana police, meanwhile, say crime rates have not been rising in the Civic Center.

“There hasn’t been an uptick in crime,” said Commander Ruben Ibarra, who oversees the Civic Center patrols.

“We’ve had those isolated incidents that have occurred, but it’s not attributed to anything specific.”

While the sheriff’s department handles security inside county buildings, Santa Ana police are responsible for the areas outside.

Seven Santa Ana officers are currently assigned to the Civic Center beat, across various shifts, Ibarra said, adding that officials are analyzing whether to restructure the timing of their deployment.

Ibarra said last month’s assault of a county employee took place at the Civic Center while the worker was on the way to their vehicle.  He didn’t have further details on that incident or the stabbing.

Hallock, the sheriff’s spokesman, said he couldn’t discuss the incidents because they are Santa Ana police investigations.

The Civic Center has long been a gathering point for the county’s homeless people, with the population growing in recent years to several hundred people.

Orange County is the most populous county in America without a year-round homeless shelter, according to advocates.  Recent efforts to build a year-round service center in Fullerton, and later Santa Ana, have collapsed amid a backlash from residents and business owners.

Meanwhile, the number of people at the Civic Center appears to have grown over the last two years, which advocates say is due at least in part to the transfer of state prisoners to local control as part of Gov. Jerry Brown’s prison realignment program.

Many of the homeless who live in the Civic Center say that, although the homeless population often fluctuates month-to-month, in recent months there have been more new faces, including non-violent offenders who were released early as a result of Prop. 47, a statewide initiative reducing penalties for some crimes.

But it’s not clear whether any of the released prisoners have been involved in the recent incidents.

“[Outsiders] would say, what are you doing bringing all these criminals into my neighborhood? And they’d be partially right,” said a homeless man named Smitty, who doesn’t feel there has been a significant change in safety conditions.

“Most of these people are no more a threat to us than they are to themselves.”

The county supervisors’ chairman, meanwhile, encouraged workers to continue bringing forward suggestions for ways county officials can improve safety.

“I am completely open to ideas [from] our county employees,” Spitzer said on Feb. 10, at the most recent board meeting.

“And if they think that we need to do more, they should absolutely put those suggestions to us in writing, so we can contemplate them and cost them out and see what might be necessary.”

Thy Vo contributed reporting to this story.

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