Allegheny County DA Zappala urges tightening security at Western Psych


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If in March UPMC had the security at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic that Allegheny County's top prosecutor wants, deranged gunman John F. Shick would have encountered a metal detector, an armor-plated reception desk, an enhanced camera system and -- perhaps most importantly -- an armed police officer.

Instead, Shick walked unchallenged with two handguns into Western Psych's lobby, where DA Steven A. Zappala Jr. said he had "unfettered" access to the Oakland facility.

"For five minutes and 16 seconds he could go anywhere he wanted," Mr. Zappala said Tuesday during a wide-ranging news conference about the incident.

Mr. Zappala described security at Western Psych on that day as "either negligible or non-existent." He also portrayed Western Psych as an increasingly violent place, where staff members are put in risky situations amid a culture of reluctance to call outside authorities for help.

"There's an implied policy of not calling 911," Mr. Zappala said. "That's wrong, and we expect that to be corrected."

But, he said, UPMC has made a "substantial commitment to safety" and plans to invest roughly $10 million to upgrade security at Western Psych and its other hospitals.

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Although UPMC did not have a cost estimate or timetable, it said the changes are under way.

UPMC said it plans to have at least one armed police officer on all shifts at hospitals in Allegheny County and at UPMC Hamot in Erie. Some officers will carry Tasers and wear bulletproof vests. Emergency departments throughout the county and in Erie will have walk-through metal detectors.

At Western Psych, employees will get their own swipe-card entrance on O'Hara Street. Patients and visitors will go through a redesigned DeSoto Street entrance.

UPMC said it will create permanent security posts in the main hospital lobby and will assign a security officer to all shifts.

These measures and others were included in a Sept. 12 presentation to the UPMC board about security by the hospital system's consultants Robert Cindrich, a retired federal judge and its former chief legal counsel, and Eljay Bowron, director of the Secret Service in the 1990s.

Also mentioned in the presentation was the installation of a metal detector and X-ray machine at Western Psych.

UPMC's experts have been working with consultants hired for $23,000 by Mr. Zappala -- former U.S. Secret Service agent John Hudson and Condortech Services Inc.

"They've been pretty cooperative," Mr. Hudson said of UPMC. Western Psych wasn't "designed to be a safeguard facility back in the day. It's coming to that now."

Zachary Zobrist, vice president of SEIU Healthcare PA, which represents about 200 Western Psych employees, applauded Mr. Zappala's efforts and called UPMC's plans a "good start."

"The concern is, when will these things be implemented," Mr. Zobrist said. He added that he remains troubled that non-security personnel at Western Psych continue to screen visitors with metal-detecting wands and confiscate contraband, including weapons.

Mr. Zappala appears to want to go several steps further with security upgrades, but it is unclear whether UPMC has endorsed his suggestions. For instance, Mr. Zappala wants more and better cameras at Western Psych that law enforcement can tap into in order to track an active shooter in real time.

In an email response to a question about whether UPMC would be willing to allow that, spokeswoman Gloria Kreps wrote only, "We fully cooperate with law enforcement."

Mr. Zappala said he has spoken to University of Pittsburgh chancellor Mark Nordenberg about Pitt signing a contract with UPMC to deploy 20 university police officers to hospital facilities throughout Oakland.

The chancellor "said they entered into discussions with UPMC to add 20 police officers to the University of Pittsburgh police," Mr. Zappala said. "Right now the plan is to add 20 people. They will be on every campus that UPMC owns in Oakland. Their plan contemplates [UPMC] St. Margaret having an armed presence there, [UPMC] Passavant."

Robert Hill, a Pitt spokesman, said UPMC was handling inquiries about the police officers, but UPMC did not respond to a specific question about the topic.

Mr. Zappala said he also wants an armor-plated reception desk, possibly with bulletproof glass.

When Shick walked into Western Psych March 8, he fired shot after shot at whim, killing 25-year-old therapist Michael Schaab, wounding receptionist Kathryn Leight, who had no protection around her desk, and injuring four other UPMC employees.

Pitt police eventually shot and killed Shick. But upon arrival, they had trouble finding the shooter. No cameras could track his movements beyond the lobby, and the surveillance that existed was characterized by Mr. Zappala as antiquated and of poor quality.

With security enhancements, Shick, a 30-year-old schizophrenic former graduate student, would have had a different experience.

"If you walk into the building under this scenario, then the magnetometer would alert. Then he's got to make a decision right then and there. What's he gonna do? And he's facing an armed presence, so it's not as if he's chasing nurses and doctors and people around that facility. He's up against deadly force," Mr. Zappala said. "Could that lead to a different result? Absolutely."

Mr. Zappala said he was irked that he lost some leverage with UPMC when the county's Department of Human Services this summer renewed a $14.9 million contract with UPMC to provide 24-hour emergency mental health services without his input.

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Jonathan D. Silver: jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962. First Published October 3, 2012 4:00 AM


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