DA asks grand jury to study security at Western Psych

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Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. has authorized a grand jury to "explore all aspects" of the deadly shooting rampage at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, including whether the facility was adequately secure and why no one involuntarily committed the mentally ill gunman despite a pattern of troubling behavior in the weeks before the incident.

John Shick, a 30-year-old former graduate student with schizophrenia, walked into Western Psych March 8 with two guns and shot six employees -- one fatally -- before being killed by police.

The district attorney said he wants to know "who knew what when, and what they did about it," referring to doctors and hospital personnel who encountered Shick acting erratically in the months leading up to the rampage, including two instances in which he brought a baseball bat to a hospital. He also has questions about hospital security and whether Western Psych has made any changes since the shooting.

Mr. Zappala said the grand jury will subpoena mental health records from New York State, where Shick was once committed.

The grand jury, which will be empaneled at the beginning of July, could recommend criminal charges or it could merely compose a report on its findings.

Mr. Zappala made the announcement during a presentation about how the facility could be made more secure before an audience of local law enforcement, corporate security representatives, security consultants and an unidentified member of UPMC's security team.

"We'll bring people before the Allegheny County grand jury to explain the procedures that were in place, the procedures that will be in place," he said.

Addressing the possibility of criminal charges against Western Psych or UPMC officials, he said, "That's an open question."

The grand jury authorization is part of a larger effort by the district attorney to urge the private medical conglomerate to shore up security in the facility.

With Mr. Zappala's input, Allegheny County Councilman Vince Gastgeb authored a bill that would require certain security measures for all mental health providers that contract with the county. It would also authorize the district attorney to inspect the facilities at his discretion and make recommendations. If the provider did not comply, the county would pull the plug on its contract. The bill was presented Tuesday and remains before the public safety committee.

Western Psych has a $14 million contract with the county that has been extended into the fiscal year 2012-13.

"If we're going to do business, we're going to protect the people that work there and we're going to protect the people who get services there," Mr. Zappala said.

In a statement, UPMC said that it "has been cooperating fully with the district attorney on his investigation as well as conducting a comprehensive review of our own. We plan to continue both of these activities." Through spokeswoman Gloria Kreps, the organization declined to answer any questions about whether changes have been made to its security.

In the presentation, Mr. Zappala lauded the work of University of Pittsburgh police officers, who responded about 90 seconds after the first report of shots fired inside the building. But he noted that Shick was able to move freely throughout the first floor for about five minutes and that responding officers had few clues as to where in the labyrinth of hallways he had gone.

He suggested that having three-dimensional floor plans would give law enforcement a tactical advantage in active shooter situations, such as the one that Pitt officers faced when they entered Western Psych that day. He also recommended having surveillance cameras inside the building that could transmit live video feed to police. Restricting access to various areas of the hospital with a card-swipe system could have limited Shick's movement, he said.

Mr. Zappala invited a vendor, Robert Faro of Faro Technologies, to talk about a special camera that can scan a room and generate a three-dimensional rendering. The district attorney said the model could be given to law enforcement to allow them to plan how they would address an active shooter scenario or hostage situation. He hoped to acquire the technology soon.

The district attorney said two teams -- one from his office and one from UPMC -- are reviewing the facility's security. He has contracted with J.P. Hudson, a security firm headed by former U.S. Secret Service Agent Jon Hudson, and Condortech Services, a security firm that recently upgraded the Veterans Affairs hospital in Oakland. UPMC's team is headed by chief legal officer Robert Cindrich.

Mr. Zappala said security vulnerabilities have already been identified. The entrance, once guarded by an unarmed security guard, is one. He also cited the fact that the receptionist station, where employee Kathryn Leight was shot four times, is not enclosed and many of the hallways lack security cameras.

neigh_city - health

Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. First Published June 23, 2012 12:15 AM


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