In 2003, a former Army recruiter entered a Northside San Antonio real estate office and opened fire on his co-workers, killing two and wounding a third. In 2008, a man who felt spurned by a physician at his wife’s office in Stone Oak – a woman he had been stalking – shot and killed the 47-year-old doctor in the parking lot.

The same year, a librarian at Northeast Lakeview College, resentful over losing a job promotion to another librarian, shot and killed his co-worker as the victim stood behind the counter. And, in San Antonio’s most recent case of workplace violence, a commander was left dead after a disgruntled tech sergeant opened fire in an office at Lackland Air Force Base in April 2016.

These and other incidents demonstrate the risks that businesses and employers aim to mitigate, even as the numbers of such violent acts increase across the nation – in public spaces, workplaces, and, as Sunday’s mass shooting in Sutherland Springs illustrated, even churches – and gun ownership laws remain in debate.

There were 417 workplace homicides in the United States in 2015. This marks an increase from 2014, but a 12 percent decrease from the 475 reported in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Homicides comprised about 9 percent of all fatal occupational injuries in 2015. Shootings accounted for 85 percent – or 354 deaths – of that year’s workplace homicides.

Nearly 26 percent of all workplace shootings in the United States in 2015 occurred in the retail industry – grocery and convenience stores, food and beverage establishments, and gas stations, Labor bureau statistics show.

Of the 417 killed in 2017, 85 percent were male. However, data compiled by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health showed that homicide is the second leading cause of injury death for women in the workplace, accounting for almost 27 percent of work-related deaths in females.

Homicides accounted for 18 percent of fatal occupational injuries to females in 2015 compared to 8 percent of fatal occupational injuries to males.

When it comes to workplace homicides, 43 percent of female victims are assaulted by people they know.

Bexar County District Attorney’s Office Chief criminal investigator Willie Ng.
Bexar County District Attorney’s Office Chief Criminal Investigator Willie Ng. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“When a shooting happens, you almost always have an employee say, ‘I’m not surprised,’ or ‘Yes, they had issues for a while, it’s no surprise,’” said Willie Ng, chief criminal investigator for the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office.

“It’s a sad thing. We always ask why they aren’t speaking up. Don’t wait until something tragic happens and there’s media and cameras in front of you. They say it’s none of their business. But it is our business because things escalate and involves innocent people.”

That’s one of the reasons he advocates for training people on how to prevent workplace violence. “It is our business, to protect each other,” he said.

In recent days, following the mass shooting at Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church, Ng said a number of church leaders have contacted him for advice about security. He has responded by recommending an on-site security assessment that addresses the facility layout, entry points, and windows.

“I’m a public servant, that’s my purpose,” Ng said. “It’s something we do help the community.”

To prevent violence, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) suggests businesses start by establishing a zero-tolerance policy. A workplace violence policy should cover all workers, patients, clients, visitors, contractors, and anyone who comes in contact with the people who work there. Likewise, employers must know the risk factors and how to intervene.

A Federal Bureau of Investigations report cited these factors for potential violence: personality conflicts (between coworkers or between worker and supervisor); a mishandled termination or other disciplinary action; bringing weapons onto a work site; drug or alcohol use on the job; or a grudge over a real or imagined grievance.

Risks can also stem from an employee’s personal circumstances — breakup of a marriage or relationship; other family conflicts; financial or legal problems; or emotional disturbance.

In his role as criminal investigator, Ng provides training to businesses, such as at a Bank of America program in October during Domestic Abuse Awareness Month, as well as at schools such as the University of Texas at San Antonio and Alamo Colleges. Sadly, Ng said, many businesses don’t have training programs, much less policies to prevent acts of violence.

Alamo Colleges today has in place a written “Prevention & Reporting of Workplace Violence & Abuse of Minors” policy to address workplace violence.

“We began our active shooter training in 2012 along with creation of our Emergency Management program,” stated Mike Legg, director of enterprise risk management at Alamo Colleges, adding that the college’s police officers had specific training related to an active shooter prior to that, but employees and students did not receive any formal training until 2012.

“Our primary objective related to active shooters is training through the emergency drills we conduct at all of our locations,” Legg stated. “Having our employees and students familiar with the ‘run, hide, fight’ protocol should an event occur on our property is critical, so we continuously promote this agenda.” The Alamo Colleges Police Department also conducts active shooter classroom training sessions at all colleges throughout the year.

“I always tell businesses this, ‘You have to have policies and procedures in place, and know the resources,’” Ng said. “If not, [employees are] going to be lost on what to do.” He commends the local offices of Bank of America for providing a training program that helps employees not only identify problems, but also deal with them.

Since new open carry gun laws went into effect in 2016, some employers have posted signs prohibiting open carry or concealed carry of handguns into the workplace. Legg said Alamo Colleges allows each of its campuses to determine whether to post such signage.

D.R. Semmes Family YMCA on North Saint Mary's Street currently has a sign prohibiting concealed handguns but not openly carried handguns. Photo by Scott Ball.
D.R. Semmes Family YMCA on North St. Mary’s Street currently has a sign prohibiting concealed carry, but not open carry. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

At Ng’s private security firm, Blue Armor, no visitors are permitted entry until they’ve provided identification and submitted to a background check. “If you qualify, then we buzz you into the area where the staff is,” he said. “We try to keep it all as secure as possible, to keep the staff safe.”

In many workplaces, however, the first line of defense is a security guard, or even a receptionist, posted behind a desk at the entrance. Whether or not this measure prevents or protects people from violent acts depends on who is posted there, according to Ng.

“People really need to understand this. A security officer’s main duty is to observe and report,” he said. “The Department of Public Safety monitors, regulates, and audits private security firms. [Their] responsibility is to immediately call police and be the eyes and ears of law enforcement.

“Then you have some that are armed. What they can do is protect themselves or someone else in a life-threatening situation. But the door-greeters sitting behind a desk, that’s more of a customer service-type deal. You can’t look at that and say, ‘Oh, I feel safe now.’”

There are varying degrees of security throughout San Antonio’s workplaces.

At the 3.9 million-square-foot USAA headquarters in Northwest San Antonio, an iron fence surrounds the perimeter and, similar to a military installation, its thousands of employees and contractors must show gate guards a company-issued ID card to enter. The card also must be swiped at the building’s video-monitored entry points. The same card-entry system is in place at the company’s downtown offices.

Members of the United States Air Force overlook a large model representing the USAA headquarters. Photo by Scott Ball.
Members of the Air Force overlook a large model representing the USAA headquarters. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report File Photo

A visitor to the Weston Centre downtown is greeted by plain-clothed security officers who also monitor the building’s video surveillance system.

Earlier this year, H-E-B announced it had hired a security firm to conduct canine patrols at seven of its stores in San Antonio. The move was said to discourage troublemakers and thieves.

A San Antonio Police Department program known as Businesses Against Theft Network (BAT-Net) holds monthly resource meetings for local business owners seeking to curb crime. Founded 21 years ago and originally focused on shoplifting and internal theft problems, BAT-Net now looks at all crimes that affect both large and small businesses in San Antonio.

This year’s April meeting focused on responding to active shooters and other hostile events – a topic that fills the meeting room to capacity every year. To be notified of BAT-Net meetings and learn more about workplace safety and security, sign up here.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.