Sunday, August 23, 2009

Having security makes me feel..well...more secure!

The really big push for security in the courthouses, at least in Texas, began after the shooting in a Dallas Appellate courtroom during a hearing back in the mid 1990's.

The incident in Georgia further cemented the security in place.

That is why I was always a little perplexed by the security situation in the Comal County Courthouse and I am grateful that Judge Danny Scheel and Commissioner's Court is remedying the problem.

Officials say it’s worth the price

There were clear skies on Friday March 11, 2005, when Brian Nichols walked into an Atlanta courthouse and shook the foundations of America’s justice system.

Nichols, on trial for rape, savagely beat a female sheriff’s deputy who was escorting him to the courtroom, stole her gun, and shot and killed presiding judge Rowland Barnes, court reporter Julie Ann Brandau and deputy Hoyt Teasley.

The then 33-year-old also murdered a federal agent after his escape from the courthouse before he was eventually caught the next day following one of the largest manhunts in Georgia’s history.

After a trial process that lasted nearly four years, Nichols avoided the death penalty and was sentenced to life in prison without parole this past December.

Although it was more than four years ago and over 900 miles away, those that remember said Nichols’ rampage serves as a chilling reminder for everyone of just how unpredictable a courtroom can truly be.

“Courthouses are sometimes very dangerous places,” said Cobb County Superior Court Judge James Bodiford, who sentenced Nichols to serve 485 years in prison. “The Brian Nichols case was one of the biggest tragedies of my lifetime, but sometimes it takes a tragedy to get folks to do the right thing.”

The “right thing” was the realization both in Georgia and across the country that courtroom security needed to be a priority in every community.

“The Atlanta shooting struck the match, and everyone began to put the emphasis on security,” said Timm Fautsko, the principal court management consultant for the National Center for State Courts. “It’s a real paradigm shift, and unfortunately it shifts when you have these kinds of incidents.”

Comal County officials are looking to avoid those incidents.

Local judges and county department heads have been railing during hearings in Commissioners Court for the past month, pointing to the need for not only added security but also the construction of an estimated $36 million downtown county justice center to provide it.

It would potentially be the largest county-funded project in history, and its construction has sparked debate over its necessity — particularly during an economic downturn.

But Comal County Judge Danny Scheel said the proposed cost is outweighed by the safety it would provide for judges, staff, jurors and the general public.

“We need to do what’s right to protect our citizens and build for our future,” he said.

Sgt. Vannie Malloy, the head of courtroom security at the Comal County Courthouse Annex, where the majority of local criminal and civil cases are tried, described security there as tenuous at best.

“You do the best you can, but it’s potentially a dangerous situation,” Malloy said.

The NCSC’s Fautsko, who has conducted courthouse security assessments all over the country, described entry screening as the first line of defense in a properly secure courthouse.

Currently, the annex building not only is lacking a single secure entrance, but has half a dozen unsecured doors into the building.

Malloy said screening and any sort of metal detection is only done when the courthouse is expecting a high-profile or potentially dangerous case.

The building’s lone prisoner holding facility can only accommodate a limited number of prisoners, and when occupied by male defendants, the females are forced to sit in the jury box. In addition, what Malloy described as an increasingly violent juvenile population, by law, cannot occupy any space that has held adult prisoners, forcing them to sit in jury rooms or waiting areas.

He said the building has no secure hallways, and defendants not in custody could easily have access to judges, jurors and staff.

And without any mandatory screening, he said any person in the courthouse could potentially be armed, making a tragedy like the Nichols case a distinct, if unlikely, possibility.

“Who’s to stop them?” he asked.

While the Nichols case is an extreme example of failed courtroom security, Malloy said violent outbursts and scares are not uncommon in courthouses across the country and in Texas.

From Sept. 2007 to May of this year, Texas’ Office of Court Administration received 294 security “incident” reports.

Those include threats, assaults, disorderly behavior and attempts both to escape and to take a weapon into a courtroom.

Half of those have occurred in district courts like those housed in the annex building.

Those episodes also come from a variety of cases, not just from violent criminal offenders, but also civil and juvenile cases.

“There’s no one predictor of who’s going to be the perpetrator,” Fautsko said.

Malloy said that’s what makes it so difficult to work in a non-secure environment. While security might be heightened for a high-profile Mexican Mafia trial, he said a potential violent outburst could just as easily come from a bitter divorce proceeding or a juvenile hearing on any random day.

“You just don’t know,” he said.

Even so, serious local security issues have been rare.

The last incident was a bomb scare after authorities found a suspicious package on the back steps of the courthouse in August 2008. After more than an hour of testing, it turned out to be just a paper bag full of powdered milk.

A man also rode to the courthouse with an automatic weapon strapped to his bicycle in 2005. He was arrested without incident.

But Scheel said just because it hasn’t happened, doesn’t mean it can’t.

“Just because we’ve been lucky in the past, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be smart and plan for possible events in the future,” he said.

And as he and fellow commissioners push for the construction of the expensive, 90,000 square-foot justice center, Scheel said any investment in safety is a wise one.

Judge Bodiford who sentenced the man in the Atlanta shooting agreed.

“Nobody wants to spend more money, particularly these days,” he said. “But the bottom line is that we have to protect the public. As a public official and in my private life, I’m very frugal, but safety is paramount to everything.”