Aftermath Of A Tragedy
For years, lawyers and judges worried about lax security at Seattle’s King County Courthouse. It took a bloodbath in Atlanta to get their concerns addressed.
Similar stories are occurring throughout the country, as city officials and security planners tackle courthouse and courtroom security issues in the wake of the Brian Nichols shootings at the Fulton County courthouse in downtown Atlanta on March 11 that took three lives, including a superior court judge.
More metal detectors have been installed in courthouses, and weapons have been barred from the court buildings, except for those carried by law enforcement and military personnel. Unarmed civilian screeners keep order alongside armed deputies.
“Whenever you have an incident like the one in Atlanta, every judge thinks about it,” Washington Supreme Court Justice Charles Johnson told The Associated Press. “They look around and start thinking about whether what has been done is enough.”
Johnson served on a statewide court-security task force following the 1995 Seattle shootings, in which a man walked into the courthouse with a pistol and used it to kill his pregnant, estranged wife and two of her friends outside a courtroom.
“I think we have the best system possible, but what happened in Atlanta certainly could happen here today, next week, or never,” said John Urquhart, spokesman for the King County Sheriff’s Office. “There’s always someone bigger and badder and stronger than a particular deputy.”
There is no clear, nationwide picture of what measures have been taken to secure courthouses. Security in federal courts is handled by the U.S. Marshals Service, but at the state and local levels, security measures vary widely.
The National Center for State Courts in Virginia has received a $100,000 Department of Justice grant to hold a court security summit with state supreme court justices next month.
“You don’t want to feel that the people in Atlanta died without at least using that to say we’ve learned from it,” says Mary McQueen, president of the courts center and the former Washington state courts administrator.
California’s chief justice recently said two-thirds of his state’s 451 courthouses lack adequate security. One judge, he said, stacked law books in front of his bench as a barrier to bullets after his rural courthouse was the scene of an attempted hostage-taking.
South Carolina, like many states, has outlined courthouse security weaknesses that are being addressed. The state’s judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, clerks of court and law enforcement officials have identified a lack of metal detectors and too few officers as major obstacles to secure courthouses.
A county commission in Plainview, Texas, has rescinded a rule banning CCTV cameras from courtrooms in the interest of extra security.
On the federal level, judges are taking measures to protect their safety. They have urged Congress to provide protection, including $12 million for security systems in most of their homes.
“Unfortunately, at the present time federal judges across the country are feeling particularly vulnerable for themselves and for their families,” said a letter from the Judicial Conference of the United States, the court’s policy-making board led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
The request follows the murder in February of a federal judge’s family in Chicago, in which an unemployed electrician committed suicide after breaking into U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow’s home and fatally shooting her husband and mother. A suicide note contained a hit list of seven federal judges and four state judges, newspaper reports say.
Judges themselves now must pay for internal security at their homes, Judge Jane Roth of the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in February. She heads the conference’s committee on security and facilities.
As for the Fulton County Courthouse, it has boosted security by adding 40 uniformed deputies and announcing that high-risk inmates will be accompanied by specially trained officers.
Fulton County has also enlisted the help of police, clergy, judges and a retired Scotland Yard commander to form a task force to discuss security at the courthouse.