Faces of Security

Faces of Security: Jim Sawyer from Seattle Children’s Hospital

Welcome to the inaugural installment of “Faces of Security,” a new Q&A series profiling industry experts across various sectors. For our first profile, we at Total Security Advisor opted to focus on a sector particularly hard hit by the ongoing pandemic: healthcare.

Jim Sawyer Seattle Children's Hospital
Jim Sawyer

However, Jim Sawyer, Security Director at Seattle Children’s Hospital, has a lot more to talk about than just COVID-19. With over 45 years in the profession, Jim is passionate about all things security, and he’s not afraid to tackle controversial topics such as politics and climate change. His responses below are insightful, refreshing, and even entertaining. (His answer connecting gun control and a “rabid bobcat’s butt” is easily the best quote of my entire career.)

As Seattle Children’s long-time Security Director, Jim oversees the safety of pediatric patients and thousands of workers at what has been designated one of the top children’s hospitals in the country. He is a certified instructor for Nonviolent Crisis Intervention (NCI) and a member of the Washington State Crime Prevention Association, ASIS, and International Association for Healthcare Safety and Security (IAHSS). He carries CPP and CHPA certifications.

Jim has taught classes across Washington state for law enforcement, schools, businesses, and other organizations. He also instructs ongoing classes for Seattle Children’s staff on workplace violence and personal safety, including an in-house self-defense course for women. In 2019, he received the hospital’s Ken Feldman Award for Diversity.

OK, without further ado, here’s Jim…

How did you get your start in the field?

I was taking Criminal Justice at Shoreline Community College in Washington, and the program allowed recruiters to contact the attending students. I took advantage of this and started a career in healthcare security in July 1976—the year Jimmy Carter was elected president. It has been quite a journey.

Who is/was your biggest influence in the industry?

Collectively, I’d have to say both the IAHSS and NCI certification programs. These two entities stress, emphasize, advocate, and ultimately validate the incredible and growing importance of training, customer service, verbal de-escalation, and the crucial need for true, authentic teamwork.

What’s your best mistake, and what did you learn from it?

My best mistake was developing enterprise-wide environmental risk assessments and assigning the completion of these surveys to a large group of stakeholders. The surveys are of huge importance, and the rollout was needed. I rectified that mistake by assigning the program and survey completion standards to one good supervisor. That makes all the difference; having a quality and trusted staff member overseeing, regulating, and maintaining a program and letting them coordinate its implementation vs. assigning the program to a large group where ownership is not clearly stated. My mistake was delegation and clarity, which once corrected, has made a major impact.

What are the biggest security issues at your organization? Are there any unique challenges (or benefits) compared to some other organizations?

For healthcare, the biggest challenges involve every facet of violence prevention. 

Hospitals face daunting challenges, including a huge and unprecedented surge in mental health patients. There was a time when I’d see one to two suicidal patients come through our Emergency Department once a week. Now it is not uncommon to see 25 a day. That this mental health surge points to greater and perhaps sentinel challenges for the nation is beyond dispute. For security planners in hospitals/healthcare, it is an enduring challenge that will task us well into the next decade. 

Another issue and challenge is the growing reality of gun violence. On an average day, 61 people will commit suicide by gun. Approximately 342 people are shot every day, including at least eight women through domestic violence. Over 70% of workplace shooters are disgruntled, angry employees, and gun sales have surged to levels nationally never seen before. These numbers are numbing, if not damning, and these realities pose serious challenges for security planners. Also add to this the realities and uncertainties of the COVID pandemic and the growing realities of new variants. One can see the challenges for hospitals are stark and unflinching.

How did the COVID-19 pandemic change the way you operate? Did priorities shift? Were there any specific steps you took to address the health and security issues?

COVID-19 changed the world. As one astute scientist noted, “Humanity is an emerging portal, and how we emerge has yet to be determined.” We are looking at a future with daunting, if not endless, challenges—variants, climate catastrophe, international turmoil, and political unrest, just to name a few. COVID-19 has tested and continues to test security professionals. The issues are many and varied. They include entrance screening, COVID testing, mask compliance, emergency interventions, de-escalating people in crisis, addressing mental health surges, working with people who deny the science and reality of COVID, and the understandable tensions and fears people harbor when confronted with the enduring and multifaceted COVID pandemic.

At Seattle Children’s, we emphasized safe screening, compassion, de-escalation ,and the ability to respond quickly. One thing I feel is a certainty is that we will never go back or segue back to “the way things were”—we have yet to exit the portal. The challenges will continue unabated.

What’s your favorite part about working in the industry? What’s your least favorite part, and how would you change it?

My favorite part of working in the industry is seeing the growth, rise ,and evolution of the profession.  I’ve indeed met some of the best and brightest in the security profession, and I’ve seen and been fortunate to see it evolve over 46 years. There are some outstanding, exceptional people in the profession, and having the opportunity to work with them—and, in some cases, help with their career development—is an honor. 

The least favorite part, at least for me, was the perception, vision, or stereotype many people had (or still have) that security officers and line staff are bouncers with perhaps Jurassic DNA, who may smell of ape excrement but have their place in stopping fights and such. Thankfully, this perception has waned and the emergency and development of the profession continues to grow and evolve.

How can company leaders make security a value within their organization?

Company leaders need to and must make security an integrated and participating partner in organizational operations. To say this is essential is a vast understatement. An organization’s security team will help eliminate violence, bullying, and shrinkage—and this is just the tip of the iceberg, if you will. The role of security cannot be minimized or siloed. To ensure the optimum contributions from security teams, company leaders need to strategically position the teams so that their role is unquestioned and their voice is always heard. The benefits here include, but are not limited to, having a safe, therapeutic, violence-free environment.

Where do you see the industry heading in five years? Are you seeing any major trends?

The security industry needs to come to terms with the growing realities of American gun violence.  This is not a gun-control argument. I would rather dry shave a rabid bobcat’s butt in a foot locker with a box cutter than argue gun control. That said, the increase in domestic weaponry and historic political polarization suggests, if not confirms, that gun violence will only become worse and that this damning, and yet preventable, tragedy will challenge security planners to an extent never experienced before. 

Our industry also needs to meet the growing realities of climate catastrophe/climate change head-on. Some security planners will discount or marginalize this issue. However, that is madness and folly, if you will. One of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse has been unleashed, and that is human-caused climate change. Security professionals need to both meet crisis weather planning head-on with immediacy and, yes, become active advocates for climate change mitigation. Anything less is a disservice to the profession.

What are you most proud of?

What I am most proud of is promoting a culture of “zero incidents” vs. “zero tolerance.” “Zero incidents” emphasizes and advocates optimum customer service and de-escalation best practices, which is the finest violence prevention strategy ever developed. With the adoption of “zero incidents,” an organization has the ability to enjoy a safe, therapeutic work environment for all, and in my view, this is the ultimate goal and achievement for modern security professionals.

Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

My advice for those entering the profession is “go for it!” Some ideas include:

  • Become a wholesale advocate for “zero incidents” and the science of de-escalation;
  • Pursue certifications! The CPP is the Holy Grail, if you will, but go for it! Consider every IAHSS certification;
  • Join—become a member of ASIS and IAHSS and your regional crime prevention associations;
  • Study the science of CPTED (Crime Prevention through Environmental Design); and
  • Acknowledge the stark realities and challenges that face us as a nation and as people—gun violence, political polarization, environmental, climate catastrophe, and record levels of both income inequality and homelessness, just to name a few. 

Finally, acknowledge the integrity and importance of your profession. Embrace it. There is no limit to what you can do.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’m recommending that security professionals get involved, and this means politically involved. I’ve heard some lament that we as a profession should never become “political.” Are we kidding? Rome is indeed burning, and security professionals have a front-row seat in human affairs that, if left unchecked, could become apocalyptic. Those issues we can and need to embrace and become involved with include, but are not limited to, climate catastrophe, surging gun violence, racial inequity, the mental health crisis, and the damning realities of income inequality. 

What profession is better equipped to offer reasoned commentary on these issues? That security professionals “get involved” here is not crossing any “lines” but is in fact embracing a centuries-old concept that we all purport to support; one that is called “democracy.” To that end, we as a profession can make a positive, a needed, and, yes, a sentinel difference.

Are you or a colleague interested in being profiled for the new “Faces of Security” series? Please contact Editor Joe Bebon at JBebon@BLR.com