Insecurity at City Hall

Why we’re really spending $130,000 to post an officer at a desk

Mayor Condon has decided to beef up security at City Hall. Instead of a $15-an-hour contract employee signing visitors in, we will now be “welcomed” by a uniformed police officer — a lieutenant no less, reportedly making $130,000 a year. This isn’t the first such effort to tighten security. In years past we didn’t check in at all. Also, we could enter City Hall directly from the skywalk that crosses from the River Park Square parking garage. The trend line seems to be heading in the direction of City Hall as a version of the Baghdad Green Zone.

While Spokane has had its share of weirdos — people who might be semi-out of control — it is only in the past decade that we have come to view mayhem as a permanent condition of public life. And what happened a decade ago? Sept. 11 happened. And it spawned the War on Terror, which replaced the Cold War. And as with all “wars,” we did what we usually do: create a new bureaucracy. We called this one the Department of Homeland Security. Our new agency seeks to answer the threat question — terrorism, not so much as a place or a person but as a tactic.

It’s easy enough to get the public on the same threat page when the war is real, as it was with World War II, but it’s more difficult when the war is hypothetical and doesn’t involve a nation-state. And when the battlefield is the “homeland,” the situation gets more complicated, if for no other reason than the need to bring in the locals. They must accept that the threat — according to Washington, D.C., i.e., Security HQ — is their threat, and the War on Terror is their war.

But here’s the downside: More often than not, when this scenario is played out, we find ourselves plunging into a morass of unintended consequences, which often redirect resources that are needed for real threats to public safety. Put another way, national strategies and tactics often aren’t all that relevant to our particular circumstances. Street crime? It gets short shrift in the War on Terror.

When considering public policy, we must try to anticipate the unintended consequences; alas, we seldom do. Our history is replete with examples: We build an interstate highway system to expedite connectivity and improve flow of commerce (and support “civil defense”), but along the way we succeed in creating suburban sprawl. We build public housing to replace the row-house ghettos and create high-rise ghettos. We reduce taxes on the wealthy on the premise that lower taxes will actually increase revenue, then watch as the national debt doubles — and then doubles again. We applaud “No Child Left Behind” and then spend the following years trying to explain to ourselves why it isn’t working.

We have passed from the Cold War State to what one writer terms the National Security State, with branch offices throughout the country. I refer to the boost in security at City Hall.

Do we need more security at City Hall? Well, according to the War on Terror manual we do. Even though an argument can be made that here the unintended consequences outweigh the intended consequences.

Could it be, however, that we invite the unintended consequence by failing to go after local crime, because we are spending so much money walling off a Green Zone at City Hall?

And does it not follow that if diminishing real threats to our public safety is what we need most, shouldn’t we start with more police presence — maybe directly across the street from City Hall?

Would this not be more relevant to our “threat” circumstances? 

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About The Author

Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.