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Police departments to add ‘safe rooms’ in stations

By Elizabeth Gibson
Columbus Dispatch

When Bexley’s new police station opens later this year, many visitors might not notice the small room connected to the lobby that typically will have its door ajar.

But the 10-by-10-foot space, and those like it that have been built in other central Ohio cities, is the result of a Reynoldsburg tragedy nearly two decades ago.

Debbie Vonschriltz, then 29, ran for help to Reynoldsburg’s police station on E. Main Street in 1991. Her husband, with a gun, was following her as she was met with a locked door.

The shots to her back, belly and shoulder left her paralyzed from the chest down. Charles R. Vonschriltz, 34, was sentenced to 17 to 25 years in prison after pleading guilty to attempted murder and kidnapping.

The shooting came after Vonschriltz had announced she was leaving her husband.

“Quite frankly, our security procedures worked the way they were supposed to at the time,” said former Reynoldsburg Chief Jeanne Miller.

“Unfortunately, this woman came in and her husband shot her before they could buzz her into the main building.”

When the department started designing a new station a few years later, Miller wanted to eliminate that delay but keep the building secure.

So in 2001, a new Reynoldsburg police station included a lobby “safe room,” where the door is typically kept open and automatically locks behind anyone who runs inside.

“She was quite clear that we prevent this from ever happening again,” said David King of Horne and King Architects. “I think the whole notion of these safe rooms originated with Jeanne Miller.” Modern police stations are teeming with technology -- wires, computers and compartments with isolated ventilation systems for storing bloodied evidence.

But adding a safe room is a pretty basic concept that can be worthwhile, police say.

Many departments long have had side chambers for fingerprinting and conducting interviews for minor issues, such as a bicycle theft.

The difference -- for a few thousand extra dollars -- is that a safe room has bulletproof walls and locking doors, King said.

Since Horne and King formed in 1978, the company has finished 12 police stations with safe rooms and is working on more.

That doesn’t mean many people are running into police buildings seeking refuge.

“It’s the old thing about if you need it, you’re glad you had it,” King said. “It’s like insurance.”

When asked about safe rooms, chiefs generally start with Vonschriltz’s story. But the rooms have other uses, too.

Departments use them to take care of routine issues or even to let children play away from a crowded lobby.

Bexley Police Chief Larry Rinehart also noted that having an interview room off the lobby keeps people from wandering deeper into the station, separating them from confidential notes, evidence and other security liabilities.

Police departments in other states have developed similar concepts.

Voorhees Township, N.J., a community of about 32,000 people, has had a safe room since 2000, and Chief Keith Hummel said he’s thinking about installing a second one.

Fights regularly break out in the lobby and the room has come in handy to separate those involved, he said.

One time, a person ran into the room as a road-rage argument escalated; another person escaped a fight that ignited during a custody exchange.

“There’s nothing worse than coming to the police station and getting beat up in the lobby,” Hummel said.

Would a safe room have spared Vonschriltz life in a wheelchair?

No one knows, police said, but they hope it can protect a person in the future.

Copyright 2009 Columbus Dispatch