Take steps to protect your facility against violence

How secure is your facility against acts of violence? If your clinic doesn’t offer abortion services, don’t be lulled into a false sense of security, warns Ann Glazier, director of clinic defense and research for Planned Parenthood Federation of America in New York City.

Anti-choice protesters are starting to blur the lines when it comes to actions against reproductive health providers, Glazier notes. At least three non-abortion-providing facilities — Planned Parenthood of Southwest Oregon in Grants Pass, OR; Planned Parenthood of Eastern Oklahoma and Western Arkansas in Broken Arrow, OK; and Family Planning Clinic in Hannibal, MO — were targets of extreme violence in 1996, according to statistics released by the Washington, DC-based National Abortion Federation.

"That’s one of the hardest jobs we have with family planning clinics is getting them over this sense of denial," Glazier states. The days of being considered a "nurturer" or "helper" may have once been a perception of family planning clinics, but that is no longer the case, she says.

Every business today has to provide adequate security, and reproductive health care facilities are no different, Glazier asserts. A facility’s need for security may be affected by the level of violence that has occurred at that site, but a risk assessment and a solid plan should be at the center of every clinic’s operation, she says.

Answer these three simple questions to determine your facility’s level of security:

1. Have you done a recent security walk-through of your facility?

Gauge what security measures are now in place at your facility. Don’t assume that your facility is prepared just because there’s an emergency response protocol tucked in a file cabinet. "It’s not enough to have them," Glazier says. "You’ve actually got to walk through and do them."

For example, where are your fire alarms? Do they operate with batteries or as part of a central system? Attention to such details now will pay off in emergency situations, Glazier says.

2. Do you know who’s coming into your clinic?

What is the procedure for making patient appointments? Glazier recommends that you let your patients know beforehand that they will be asked for identification when they come in, requested to confirm that they have an appointment, and notified that their bags may be checked.

How do you handle suspicious people at the front desk? Glazier shares the following example: "At one of our clinics, a man came up to the reception desk and said, What day do you kill babies here?’ I don’t think it takes a brain surgeon to know that this person is not a supporter. There needs to be some way that once you identify somebody as not a friend, unfriendly, or a threat, you have a way to deal with that situation."

Clinics may want to install a kickbar underneath a receptionist’s desk, suggests Alice Cohan, director of national programs with the Arlington, VA-based Feminist Majority Foundation. This mechanism will allow the receptionist to sound an alarm to security officials without being detected when approached by a threatening party.

3. How is your receptionist protected?

In concentrating on providing staffing, equipment, and the supplies necessary to deliver patient care, administrators may overlook the first point of patient contact: the receptionist. Protection should begin at the front door and extend all the way through the clinic, says Glazier.

"If they don’t really think about protecting people until they’re back in a medical service area, it’s too late," she explains. "You’ve already exposed everybody in the clinic by exposing them at the front."

Some clinics may opt to put security cameras outside the front entrance, while others may put up a protective barrier, such as a non-shattering window, to separate the receptionist from the waiting area. Look at the level of violent or disruptive activity at your facility to determine your security needs, Glazier advises.

"When you do your security assessment, part of that assessment looks at what kind of activity you have in front of your clinic — if you don’t have anything, if you have a rosary group once a week, if you have protesters who are actively stalking your clinic manager and doctor, if your building has been vandalized 16 times in the last year," she notes. "All of these things make a difference as to what kind of security you’re going to want to design."

Once a facility has made an initial survey of its security plans, an independent risk analysis should be made by an outside agency. National organizations such as Planned Parenthood and the Washington, DC-based National Abortion Federation (NAF) offer this service, but for independent facilities, the key is to contact a security consultant who’s not in the business of selling security equipment, says Glazier.

While you might consider having local law enforcement perform your assessment, many officers may be reluctant to do so because of the potential liability involved, notes Glazier.

"The problem with law enforcement [doing an assessment] is that if they don’t suggest everything, then their understanding from their lawyers is that they have some liability if something happens to you," she explains.

Check with Planned Parenthood, the National Abortion Federation, or the Feminist Majority Foundation for suggestions on independent security consultants, or ask your local law enforcement agency, says Glazier. Be sure to determine up front what any potential consultant’s stance is on reproductive health before you open your facility for inspection.

"You have to ask that consultant what their position is on the issue of reproductive health, because you do not want a consultant who’s an anti’ in your clinic looking at your floor plan and security system," she asserts. "That is not an unreasonable question to ask, and if they don’t answer it, I wouldn’t hire them."

Know your law enforcement

Get to know your law enforcement officials on the local, state, and federal levels now, even if you haven’t had any acts of violence at your clinic, says Vicki Saporta, NAF’s executive director.

"I think I would actually start with establishing law enforcement contacts and having them do a refresher course on bomb threats or suspicious packages and evacuation, monitoring the entrances and exits, locking dumpsters, staging practice evacuations and drills," she notes. "Law enforcement agencies should be able to help do that."

Cultivate an understanding that there is a full spectrum of services for both men and women at your clinic, and you may see an enhanced sense of cooperation from your officers. Many are often amazed that care extends beyond terminations of pregnancies. For example, 95% of the 312 facilities included in the Feminist Majority Foundation’s survey of clinic violence provided other services such as cancer screenings, vasectomies, pregnancy counseling, infertility treatment, and prenatal care.

"It’s absolutely critical that clinics build a relationship with law enforcement from the very beginning," says Glazier. "They cannot wait until something happens. They have to bring officers into the clinic, let them tour the clinic, and see what goes on, see what kinds of patients are there and what services they’re offering. A lot of law enforcement people have no idea that these clinics offer anything but abortion, and that includes family planning clinics."