The VTA is bolstering its security following an employee’s deadly rampage last week. But an expert in workplace violence says the agency may need to go deeper than physical safeguards to increase safety.
“The prevention piece, if properly done, is worth millions of millions of dollars,” said Felix Nater, owner of Nater Associates Security Management Consulting. “It’s a win-win situation, if there’s proper investment.”
Nater said he worked with the U.S. Postal Service’s violence intervention team after the deadly shooting in Edmond, Oklahoma in 1986 when an employee killed 14 coworkers. The incident is the origin of the phrase “going postal.”
The expert said the USPS workers’ union played a key role in helping bridge the gap between employees and management.
“We collaborated with senior management, and we also allowed the unions to play a significant role in doing whatever they could to educate their constituents,” Nater said. “The union played an instrumental role in ensuring that management lives up to its own mandates at creating a safe and secure workplace.”
In San Jose, tensions between VTA’s main union and the transit agency’s management has been rising.
Union officials recently accused managers of not protecting VTA drivers and operators during the pandemic. The union pushed for rear-door boarding amid a steep rise in COVID-19 cases among VTA workers and demanded support enforcing the mask mandate on its vehicles.
Nine VTA workers were gunned down when a disgruntled coworker opened fire after a union meeting at light rail yard in downtown San Jose before killing himself. VTA suspended light rail service and recently stopped providing additional bus service to passengers.
Some VTA employees voiced fear and frustration in the wake of the incident, saying the transit agency produced a hostile work environment. One worker told San José Spotlight he was not entirely surprised by the shooting.
Nater said an environment where employees feel valued is critical to preventing workplace violence, especially given the difficulty in acquiring the physical security necessary to stop mass shootings. For example, Nater said, even if VTA terminated the shooter’s employment prior to his criminal acts, he still may have been able to enter the offices at the light rail yard.
“When you have a large organization, where there is no adequate security… he just walks right in, because they know him,” Nater said.
VTA already has closed-circuit security cameras at all of its facilities, but a spokesperson told San José Spotlight that discussions are taking place to determine additional security measures.
Last week’s mass shooting is also causing other transit agencies to reexamine their security measures such as police, cameras and digital access cards.
Police regularly patrol BART’s maintenance facilities, which are also monitored by closed-circuit cameras. In addition, each employee is only granted access to the BART facility where they work, so an employee who works at the headquarters in Oakland won’t have access to the maintenance complex in Hayward.
“In regard to changes following the VTA tragedy, BART police have increased their patrols,” said BART spokesperson Jim Allison. “BPD does not share specifics of deployment of its resources so we cannot provide detailed information about what those increased patrols entail.”
Other transit agencies are similarly reticent about security efforts, saying worker and passenger safety requires keeping those details private.
“We are a transit agency, and that means the demands of serving the needs of riders, and employees, are constantly evolving,” said Robert Lyles, spokesperson for the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District. “The senseless violence at VTA is a reminder that regardless of industry, employees and employers must remain vigilant and work in concert to foster a safer workplace.”
However, Nater said physical defenses can only go so far in defending against a disgruntled employee. In North Carolina, where Nater’s offices are based, a man drove his car through the front doors of the Walmart where he used to work on April 2. And on Tuesday, an off-duty firefighter killed his coworker at a fire station in Santa Clarita.
The security expert said an employee motivated to cause harm to his coworkers will find a way to do it.
“You can’t possibly (guard) all of the access ways,” Nater said. “He knows how to get in.”
Nater said the best long-term solution is to invest in workers throughout their time at the workplace—approaching them with dignity, empathy and respect—and to make them feel like they are valued.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Nater said. “Once you establish some credibility with the workforce, they’ll recognize your efforts.”
Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.