Mean street, USA: the problem of abuse and violence in the field.

Author:Berg, Rebecca
Position:Inside the Profession

Introduction: How Bad Is It? One day, a young environmental health professional, inspecting a rental property in the company of the owner, found asbestos legging on pipes in the basement. Because the asbestos was friable, regulations in the jurisdiction required the owner to hire an asbestos abatement contractor to remove it.


"And he just didn't want to hear that," said Phyllis Boucher, now superintendent/director of the Norwood Board of Health in Massachusetts. They were alone in the basement, and the owner began shouting at her. "He lost it, basically."

Was he threatening her physically?

"I don't know if I was being threatened," Boucher said honestly. "I felt threatened. I was afraid."

That state of uneasy ambiguity is typical of many interactions environmental health professionals have with irate members of the public. To some extent it also mirrors a larger uneasiness about just how dangerous the profession is in general.

"It happens a lot," said Dick Pantages, NEHA Region 2 vice president and formerly division chief of the Alameda County Environmental Health in California. "People say, 'I'll kill you if you do that.' They probably don't really mean it--it's probably just an expression--but if you don't know the person, you have to be careful."

The frequency with which environmental health professionals encounter abusive behavior and violence varies widely by jurisdiction. Paul Guenther, environmental health director for a jurisdiction in north-central Idaho, said that in more than 30 years of work, he has felt that he was in danger only on very rare occasions--"and not in recent years." Although there have been some tense encounters in his jurisdiction (more on those later), his staff are not running into volatile situations on a day-to-day basis. By contrast, several environmental health professionals from urban areas of California told the Journal of Environmental Health (JEH) that such encounters are regular occurrences.

Lawrence Pong, principal environmental health inspector for the city and county of San Francisco, believes that these stories are largely unknown to the public at large, partly because "the average inspector tends to lock [them] up within himself or herself." In an effort to remedy that situation, Pong's department has been publishing a series called "First Person" in a departmental newsletter that is circulated to lawmakers and other health departments (Jeung, 2001; LaMacchia, 2004; Ong, 2001; St. Jean, 2002; Tong, 2001).

The type of abuse environmental health professionals encounter also ranges widely, from comical to bizarre to vicious. In the course of interviewing professionals around the country for this article, JEH heard stories of irate developers caging inspectors in by locking chainlink fences, of nursing-home operators threatening field staff with shotguns and throwing gris-gris powder (the New Orleans version of voodoo powder), of holes being punched in walls. And, of course, two incidents loom large in this discussion: the 1992 murder of Environmental Health Specialist Cynthia Volpe and members of her family by a landlord whose property she had inspected, and the 2000 murder of three state and federal meat inspectors at a sausage factory.

Really terrible incidents may be "few and far between," acknowledged Greg Erickson, director of public health in Wilmington, Massachusetts, "but then, sometimes cops go their whole careers and never draw a weapon." Uncertainty and the potential for conflict are intrinsic to a job that requires one to enter onto other people's turf as--and this seems to be a key part of the equation--a representative of the government.

It can be hard to know exactly how much wariness is warranted. One does not want to devote excessive mental, emotional, and professional energy to protecting oneself from imaginary dangers--and, on the other hand, one does not want to get killed. This dilemma becomes visceral in the wake of incidents like the Volpe and sausage factory murders, particularly so for those who work in the vicinity. One environmental health specialist from California wrote to JEH:

I find myself trying not to be seen by operators/tenants so that my family isn't subject to my work and any possible retaliation. I have had several "mystery" flat tires in less than a month (all nails or screws), and I don't inspect construction projects of any type. I have never had a specific threat directed at me, but vague comments to where I feel there is a potential threat. I currently maintain what I call my "watch list": operators, owners, tenants, etc.--anyone I feel may be or may become a threat to me or my family. I also keep my phone unlisted and surf the Web from time to time to make sure no personal information is posted. Is he going overboard? Perhaps, but as Boucher of Norwood, Massachusetts, told JEH, "you don't know how people will react" to unwelcome news. The proprietor who terrified her when she wrote up his asbestos violation "was not somebody I had any concern about prior to going down into the basement."

Not-knowing is a difficult place to be. When environmental health professionals find themselves worrying about the dangers that may lurk behind each door they knock on, that situation has implications for the practice of the profession in general. This article will explore some of the ethical dilemmas that the potential for violence raises for all stakeholders--field staff, environmental health management, and, not least of all, the general public.

Rage: Is It Getting Worse?

Some of the environmental health professionals whom JEH heard from on this issue thought violence was on the decline in particular jurisdictions or areas (e.g., neighborhoods that used to be "dangerous"); others saw no trend in either direction. Many, however, felt that "people do seem more violent than they used to be," as one environmental health professional from a rural Midwestern county wrote in to say. It is important to note that these impressions are subjective and anecdotal, and that people who responded to queries on the topic may have been self-selecting because of personal experiences with violence on the job or because of an interest in the issue.

Those who saw a rise in aggression blamed causes ranging from the ruthless speed at which society now moves to generally rising levels of stress to the precarious economic straits many people find themselves in to the influence of the electronic media, which, as Mike Hines, a code compliance officer with the city of Thousand Oaks, California, put it, has been "bombarding people with violence as a method for solving problems over the last 25 to 40 years."

Boucher believes that people are generally unwilling to communicate with their neighbors to resolve problems. As a result, the health department gets exploited as a go-between. "And it can be stupid things, like 'My neighbor puts his trash out too close to my side,'" she told JEH. When Boucher asked the complainant if he had talked to the neighbor, she said he told her that they hadn't been speaking for 25 years, and that "'I'm not going to start now.'"

"For whatever reason," Pantages agreed, "we're tending to be a more and more violent society." He cited the archetypal modern scenarios of people indulging their rage: "'He dissed me--that's why I shot him.' 'He cut me off, so I ran him off the cliff.'"

The Volpe Murders

Rage--not just momentary rage, but a sustained, vengeful rage--characterized one of the worst crimes that has been committed against an environmental health professional. In June 1991, Cynthia Volpe, who worked as an environmental health specialist for Kern County, California, was assaulted while investigating a housing complaint about a rental property. The property owner, Robert Courtney, beat her so badly that her recovery necessitated several months off work. Charges were pressed, and Courtney was prosecuted. In August of 1992, while the case was in jury, Courtney went to Volpe's house and murdered her, her husband, and her mother. He was killed the next day after a police chase (Ng, 2000).

"You're Not the Boss of Me"

An antagonistic relation between business operator and environmental health professional is not an inevitability. Sometimes, as Deborah Smith-Cooke of San Luis Obispo County, California, wrote to JEH, "the inspector is seen as an extension of the business" because "he or she is there to help ensure that things are done safely." Sometimes, however, "the inspector will be seen as a necessary evil to be put up with" or as "a threat to the business, so that the inspection becomes a struggle for 'power' in the mind of the operator." When these two attitudes prevail, the working climate grows difficult, and the environmental health professional may have to deal with "hostility, threats, and psychological warfare."

Often, it's not only a question of money. "People get very upset if someone of authority can approach them on their property," observed Michael Reynolds, second vice president of the California Association of Code Enforcement (CACE), an organization that has been working with the California Environmental Health Association (CEHA) on the issue of violence against code enforcement officers. For an example of another motive, see the sidebar on page 67.

Many of the environmental health people JEH heard from, especially those working in Western states, touched on the theme of operators who believe they should be able to run their facilities as they see fit, without interference--especially from representatives of the government. Guenther of the North Central District Health Department in Idaho told JEH that in the past 15 years, his jurisdiction has experienced an influx of extreme-right groups: "the Constitutionalists, the Patriot-type folks, white supremacists--they go by different names." Often, members of these groups do not recognize the authority of government agencies to regulate and...

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