Hospital Shooting Reignites Debate Between Reasonable and Intrusive Security

The dichotomy for hospital security personnel is to design a system that’s unpredictable in its random crime prevention activities, yet predictable in basic building security duties.

by Robert Johnson / December 9, 2010
Johns Hopkins Hospital .gov

The Sept. 16 murder of a patient, shooting of a doctor and subsequent suicide by an emotionally distraught visitor at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore has renewed discussions about the growing danger posed by crazed individuals having access to the nation’s most vulnerable public and private institutions.  

The quest to find an appropriate balance between reasonable security mechanisms and what might be termed intrusive measures continues to ignite debate after this most recent incident. Despite immediate calls for additional security and installation of magnetometers, a Johns Hopkins spokesperson put the situation in perspective when he discussed the hospital’s unique security problem citing 80 different entrances and 80,000 visitors a week.

The cost of equipment and armed operators to run the equipment, for example, would be prohibitive in an area of 53.4 acres. Currently more than 300 uniformed, unarmed security personnel and 100 supplemental off-duty Baltimore city police officers patrol the complex. 

In this case, the Baltimore Police Department was a first responder and acted in concert with established emergency protocols. Whether all the emergency protocols were successful in isolating the shooter, protecting hospital personnel, and communicating the incident appropriately with hospital workers and emergency responders is yet to be determined. What’s known is that after the shooting, the suspect was confined to a single room on the eighth floor, surrounded by the Baltimore SWAT team and no further injuries to workers or visitors were sustained.

Unlike most security systems, the dichotomy for hospital security personnel is to design a system that’s unpredictable in its random crime prevention and suppression activities yet predictable in its day-to-day basic building security duties in an open environment. Johns Hopkins is a city in microcosm with the potential for all the problems, crime and stresses that one might expect in an urban environment.

In the aftermath of the shooting, Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld quickly assembled senior executives from all the universities in the Baltimore area to discuss response and communication issues. Given the territorial nature of police agencies, this could go a long way toward establishing a framework for cooperation and ongoing communication, including intelligence sharing.

Although the deaths of two individuals and shooting of a doctor shocks the conscience of most Americans, it’s worthwhile to remember that the incident was caused by the suspect’s personal choices and not policies, procedures and plans made by first responders. It’s a valuable distinction to remember.

Robert A. Johnson Sr. is a 41-year veteran of law enforcement. He served as a captain with the Anne Arundel County Police Department in Maryland before retiring in 2008 and most recently as a civilian policy analyst at the University of Maryland Baltimore Police Force.

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