From metal detectors to ID checks, visitors entering agency headquarters and large federal facilities in and around the nation's capital are subjected to intense security — so much so that they're often warned to leave extra time to get through the screening.
But federal investigators and unions are raising concerns about safety in small field offices scattered across the country, where federal employees at the IRS, Social Security Administration and other agencies are more likely to interact with the public.
The Treasury Department's Office of the Inspector General — in an audit last month that was made public just ahead of this year's tax filing deadline — found frontline Internal Revenue Service employees don't have adequate tools to warn of potentially dangerous tax preparers.
And the Government Accountability Office, in a separate report in September, questioned the training of contract security guards hired by the Federal Protective Service for multiple agencies, noting that 23 percent of those surveyed lacked required training documentation.
The most high-profile attack in recent years involved a Texas man who in 2010 flew a small plane into a building housing an IRS field office in Austin, killing an agency employee.
But while that case received significant attention, union officials and agency reports show less conspicuous assaults and threats take place regularly. The number of threats made at Social Security offices nationwide more than doubled between 2007 and 2010, the inspector general for the Woodlawn-based agency found.
"We're 13 years after Sept. 11, and we still have somewhat of an inconsistent approach across the federal agencies," said George W. Foresman, a former Homeland Security undersecretary who is now a private security consultant.
"The further we get from post-9/11 the greater the level of apathy seems to be about ensuring a constant and consistent and appropriate level of security," he said.
The Treasury inspector general found that 7,140 individuals and 84 taxpayer representatives had received "potentially dangerous taxpayer" or "caution upon contact" designations. Those warnings are applied to taxpayers who assault or threaten employees, belong to groups that advocate violence against the IRS or who threaten suicide.
While frontline employees are able to identify individuals with those designations, the process to check tax preparers is more cumbersome, mainly because IRS employees don't have access to their Social Security numbers. That makes it harder for frontline agents to reliably search for them in computer databases.
The audit noted four incidents of physical assault by tax preparers on IRS employees or contractors from 2010 through 2012.
In all, the inspector general processed more than 8,600 threat-related complaints last year. The agency has 670 facilities across the country, ranging from one-person offices to large processing facilities with thousands of employees.
"The IRS has not developed sufficient procedures to enable frontline employees to readily identify whether a taxpayer representative has been designated" a threat, according to the inspector general.
A leading union that represents many of those employees has raised concerns about security at its offices for years.
"The threat to frontline workers from violent or abusive taxpayers is real," said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. "Heated rhetoric about government employees — and IRS employees, in particular — raises the danger."
A spokesman for the IRS did not respond to a request for comment. In its formal response to the audit, the agency agreed its process of screening for threats is "cumbersome" but said officials "believe our current procedures are appropriate to ensure the safety of our employees."
The union that represents field office workers at Social Security credited the agency with taking steps to improve safety — such as remodeling offices to restrict access and requiring that guards carry weapons — but said more work remains.
Only about 100 of the agency's 1,100 field offices have dedicated metal detectors, said Witold Skwierczynski, president of the Social Security Council of the American Federation of Government Employees. Some of the remaining offices might have tighter security if they are located in federal buildings, he said.
The union would like to see the agency deploy more metal detectors and allow guards to search bags.
"We are the bearers, frequently, of bad news," said Skwierczynski.
He suggested that the public's frustration with government has increased as budget cuts have forced offices to reduce hours and lengthen review times.
"It is a potentially very dangerous situation that our employees are in," he said. "The more security that we can have, the better."
But every added measure of security can also elicit concerns from the public, Foresman said. When Social Security armed its guards, the agency met with criticism from some quarters for making a large purchase of ammunition.
In a statement, a Social Security spokesman said the agency had implemented security standards beyond what is required by the Department of Homeland Security.
"We're constantly working to standardize security procedures to make effective use of available resources," the statement read.
Security at federal facilities has been the focus of several congressional hearings following high-profile incidents on military bases, including last year's mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard that left 12 people dead.
In another case, a soldier at Fort Hood, Texas, killed three before committing suicide earlier this month — the second mass shooting at the Army base in less than five years.
But aside from the 2010 plane crash, incidents in field offices have received less national attention. A 34-year-old man was arrested last year on gun charges after he threatened to bomb an IRS office near Salt Lake City, Utah, for instance.
A North Carolina man was sentenced to more than a decade in prison in 2012 for punching a security guard at a Social Security office the year before.
Foresman, the security consultant, said government field offices have to strike a tricky balance between providing security and allowing people to access services they need. That effort is complicated, he said, by Washington's focus on budget reductions.
While many point to metal detectors, Foresman said agencies can often take smaller and less controversial steps to improve security, such as installing barriers and surveillance equipment.
Among the most important moves is training for employees to improve situational awareness.
"You're never going to eliminate risk. What you're trying to do is control your risk," he said. "The challenge that I think all of the agencies are running into is answering, 'Where do they want to put a limited amount of resources?'"
IRS audit, by the numbers
IRS employees who have contact with taxpayers: 25,000
Taxpayers with warning designations: 7,140
Threat-related complaints last year: 8,600
Threats made at SSA offices in 2010: 1,320
Source: Office of the Inspector General, Treasury DepartmentCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun