Troubling incidents on the increase
Staff in the Okanogan County Clerk’s Office have been concerned about their safety after an increasing number of incidents with members of the public who are irate or who act inappropriately toward staff, Clerk Susan Speiker told the county commissioners in early January.
“The climate that we’re dealing with has changed,” Speiker told the commissioners. When she started work at the clerk’s office 13 years ago, it was possible to calm people down by talking to them. “Now, we go from zero to 300, and there’s no backing that down at times,” she said.
Recently, a member of the public stopped Speiker in the hall to ask if she felt safe because the person was concerned about her safety, Speiker said. That’s not a normal question, Speiker said.
Speiker told the Methow Valley News that she was unable to provide details of the recent incidents. But she told the commissioners about a member of the public who wanted to place a restraining order against the clerk, and about other incidents where an individual threatened the staff. Another person refused to follow regulations because the person believed there wasn’t adequate signage, Speiker told the commissioners.
County facilities maintenance staff are erecting partitions at the windows of the Clerk’s Office in the county courthouse. The partitions help protect office staff by shielding them from view and provide privacy so they can help more than one client at a time at the service window.
The staff is particularly on edge after a December incident in Snohomish County, where the courthouse was locked down for three hours after a man entered carrying at least two guns and refused to put them down when ordered by police officers, Speiker said.
Speiker told the commissioners that she’s concerned about staff members getting safely to their vehicles, particularly in the evening after the courthouse closes. She’s worried that people will resign because they don’t feel safe at work.
“If I’m scared to go to work, how can I not think that my staff is also scared?” she told the commissioners. She said she’s concerned both for her staff and the public.
In addition to the partitions — which will screen workers in the back — Speiker would like a security camera at the front window. A camera would help by putting people on notice that their behavior is being monitored, she said.
Because they had surplus materials, the partitions won’t require additional funding. The county should be able to use money from the federal American Rescue Plan Act for additional courtroom security, Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover said. He suggested Speiker talk with the county’s information technology staff about tying into other security cameras and post a sign letting people know they’re under surveillance.
They are also working on alternatives so that the staff doesn’t have to use public restrooms. The clerk’s office has been rearranged so that employees have cubicles, Speiker said.
Services widely used
All members of the public will need the services of the Clerk’s Office at some point in their life, Speiker told the News. The clerk keeps all court records, legal filings and minutes of court proceedings; manages the jury system; and collects court fees, restitution and crime victims’ compensation.
They also maintain records to help adopted people who are searching for birth parents, or birth parents searching for children they have relinquished.
The county clerk also has certain non-court functions, such as holding bonds for public officials and keeping records for some special-purpose districts. The Okanogan County Clerk’s Office serves people in person, by phone and online.
“I believe the commissioners heard my concerns and are addressing them,” Speiker told the News.