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City of Buffalo, Erie County beef up security at buildings, popular venues

Suicide bombs and gunfire in Paris and a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., are rocking American cities from coast to coast.

Local police and other officials say that they have received no credible threats in the Buffalo area but that they still are tightening security at government buildings and entertainment venues.

Among recent steps:

• Police officers are now stationed in the City Hall lobby, have been given 24-hour access to the building, and will staff all Common Council meetings.

• The footbridge that connects Erie County’s Rath Building to the Main Place Mall has been closed indefinitely.

• The county executive, sheriff and other top officials met Thursday to discuss security at all county buildings.

• Security is being beefed up at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Orchard Park for all Buffalo Bills home games through the end of the season.

• Security was noticeably stronger at a recent Sabres game in First Niagara Center.

“Clearly, with what’s going on in the world, it’s important to accelerate the security measures we planned on implementing,” Mayor Byron W. Brown said Thursday.

Brown’s administration has been working for some time on enhancing security in City Hall, but recent events moved up the timetable.

Over the last year or so, Brown said, the city distributed name tags to city employees and also reduced after-hours and weekend availability of City Hall for public activities such as building tours. Following the recommendations of a Security Task Force he created last year, Brown also wants to increase the number of surveillance cameras in City Hall and is considering such measures as metal screening of packages and visitors.

The full array would carry a hefty price tag, according to Brown, who said the city is looking for state and federal funding to help defray costs. Some of the measures also would require Council approval. Several members said they generally support Brown’s plan, but also worry about security becoming too intrusive if, for example, cameras document everyone who enters and leaves Council offices.

“I don’t want to wait til something occurs before we take preventative measures,” said Council President Darius G. Pridgen, who quickly added: “I don’t want people to feel uncomfortable coming into their own house.”

Fillmore Council Member David A. Franczyk agreed. “I hate it,” he said of metal detectors. “Government should be the house of the people. But I know we live in a different world now.”

The Nov. 13 attacks in Paris by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, prompted the initial wave of concern among Buffalo and Erie County officials. The massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., that killed 14 people and wounded 21 on Wednesday only exacerbated those concerns.

It’s not just those two incidents though, said several public officials, who cited other recent instances, including the string of ISIS attacks in Mali and domestic shootings such as the June 17 massacre in a South Carolina church. Brown also mentioned the 2003 killing of a New York City councilman in Council Chambers by a political opponent.

Stadium security tight

Security at this Sunday’s Bills home game against the Houston Texans will be much tighter than at previous games.

Sheriff Timothy B. Howard announced Thursday that more deputies will be present at the game, including additional K-9 teams and uniformed and plainclothes deputies throughout the stadium and parking lots. In addition, vehicles entering those parking lots are subject to inspection.

Also Thursday, the enclosed pedestrian bridge linking the Rath Building to the Main Place Mall above Pearl Street downtown was closed indefinitely in response to the California massacre. The bridge provides access to thousands of county employees and residents seeking county services. Many people park in the ramp below the mall and make their way to the footbridge. Attorneys and other workers in the Liberty Building, which is connected to the mall at Court Street, also use the ramp regularly.

“Until such time as we can guarantee the safety and security of our employees and guests, we will be closing the bridge and also putting in other security measures at the Rath Building,” County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said.

Discussions on closing the bridge have occurred for years, Poloncarz said, but the California shooting prompted him to do it now. He said there have been many arrests over the years of people carrying illegal weapons into the Rath Building.

The lobby of the building on the Franklin Street side has a security desk, where visitors are required to sign in, state the reason for their visit, produce identification if asked, and allow their personal belongings to be searched if necessary, Poloncarz said.

But those procedures create a false image that  the building is secure, Poloncarz said. The pedestrian bridge has no security checkpoint and anyone can enter from the mall into the third floor of the Rath Building, he said.

County security officers pulled down a metal door to close off the footbridge Thursday morning.

“We don’t know who is in the building when someone enters from that point and we have had people who have been banned from the building who still come in through that point,” Poloncarz said.

The are no metal detectors at the Rath Building; detectors are present at Old County Hall, which houses the courthouse, County Clerk’s Office, and County Legislature.

Public reactions vary

Reactions to the footbridge closing ranged from criticism to a resigned acceptance, given the shootings across the country.

Mike Scully, a county worker, said it was a good idea to close the footbridge. “People think it will never happen to them, but there is too much hate and anger in the world. It’s better to have too much security than not enough,” he said.

Kate Edwards, owner of the Roastery, was concerned about a loss in customer traffic, as were other mall business owners and workers. “I’d say a third to half our customers come from the Rath Building and they use that bridge,” Edwards said.

Eva Liu, owner of Ding How Express, a Chinese fast-foot restaurant, said, “At least 90 percent of our customers come from the Rath Building.”

“The smart thing would be to have controlled access to the bridge,” county worker Ginny Schinas said. “A lot of people park in the ramp, and it’s going to be a hardship.”

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