Judges and court staff deal with people on a daily basis who are facing the stress of litigation or criminal prosecution. During the past month, tragic events in Chicago and Georgia have reminded those involved with courthouse security of the potentially volatile responses litigants and defendants might have to that stress.
Judges and law enforcement officials note that those incidents as well as occurrences in Wisconsin courtrooms throughout the past few years have helped keep security an ongoing issue. Two focal points arise during security discussions taking appropriate steps to secure the physical premises and ensuring that security procedures are followed.
In Milwaukee, the May 2002 fatal courtroom shooting of a defendant on trial for murder continues to drive security discussions. Laron Ball disarmed a deputy in a Milwaukee courtroom after hearing himself pronounced guilty of murder. Ball bolted, stole a deputy’s gun, frightened jurors, struggled with deputies and shot one of them, before he himself was shot and killed by a Milwaukee police detective.
"We constantly review our security procedures," said Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke. "We learned the hard way like they did in Atlanta. Fortunately, we did not have all the bloodshed that they had."
The March 11, 2005, Georgia incident involved Brian Nichols, who was on trial for rape. Reports indicate Nichols overpowered a female deputy, who was escorting him to court, and stole her gun. He has been charged with the murders of a Superior Court judge and court reporter inside a courtroom. He was also charged with killing a deputy while fleeing the courthouse and a U.S. Customs agent during his run from authorities prior to being taken back into custody.
“I feel that the courts are safe enough to conduct the administration of justice. At the same time, no level of security is absolute.”
David A. Clarke
Clarke said the Nichols and Ball situations remind officials that it is not enough to simply have policies in place. They have to ensure those policies are followed.
"What went wrong in the Laron Ball situation is that the plan that we had in place wasn’t followed," he explained. "We had a plan, we were aware of this individual’s propensity for violence. He had made it clear exactly what he was going to do."
U.S. Marshal William Kruziki faces the challenge of securing the federal courthouse in Milwaukee. Although a federal judge has never been injured or killed inside a federal courtroom, Kruziki said courthouse security remains an important issue.
Like Clarke, Kruziki stressed the importance of following established procedures for transporting prisoners. He noted that failing to follow procedures or becoming complacent can have terrible consequences.
Kruziki said he recently polled 15 different people working at the federal courthouse about security issues. He was surprised when their responses ranged from an appreciation of tight security at the entrances to a desire to have the building completely open to the public with no security stops. Currently, each entrance to the building is secured.
"In this day and age, you need the existing level of security because of the tenants in the building federal judges with lifetime appointments, who are under a perceived threat at all times just because of the cases that they handle," he said.
Criminal cases are not the only ones that raise concerns. Kruziki said, "[Judges] are making decisions against individuals, corporations and companies on a regular basis that affect these people significantly."
One month ago, two members of a federal judge’s family were shot and killed in her Chicago home. Authorities have indicated Bart Allen Ross was responsible for killing U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey’s husband and mother. A letter written by Ross states he was angry that Lefkow had dismissed his civil lawsuit. Ross killed himself during a traffic stop in West Allis March 9.
That situation underscores the fact that emotions run high in cases outside the criminal arena.
Wisconsin Eighth District Circuit Court Chief Judge Joseph M. Troy of Outagamie County said, "The recent events haven’t prompted any new district-wide initiatives at this point, but I think it’s clear that every county has had reason to reflect on whether they are doing things as well as they can given their resources."
Troy noted that every county is required to have a courthouse security committee, with some meeting more regularly than others. Security remains an ongoing consideration in Outagamie County, he said.
“Most of us accept some level of vulnerability as part of the job.”
Hon. Joseph M. Troy
Fifth District Circuit Court Chief Judge Michael N. Nowakowski in Madison observed, "In terms of what has happened over the past couple of weeks, this has served as a reminder of the nature of courthouses, the court process, and the peril and d
anger that is always associated with the nature of what we do."
Possible problems should be expected when the courts bring people together and "very emotional and high-stakes disputes result," Nowakowski said. "That just naturally creates a setting in which the potential for violence is always present."
Like Kruziki, he stressed the importance of not becoming complacent just because a particular courthouse has not had a serious incident in awhile. "That doesn’t mean that there couldn’t be one tomorrow," Nowakowski said.
Both Clarke and Kruziki noted the importance of weapon retention training. In the Nichols situation last month and the Ball incident three years ago, deputies had their guns stolen.
After the Ball incident, Clarke said his department purchased new holsters making it difficult for someone else to remove the weapon. When they began using the new holsters, that required additional training for deputies to learn how to remove their own weapons. They also have special training sessions using faux guns where deputies have to protect their guns from assailants who are trying to remove them.
Other changes took place in the felony courts where bolts were installed under defendant tables with curtains that could be placed around the table to cover that. New, more effective technology replaces the stun belts that were used several years ago to subdue inmates appearing in court.
Kuziki explained that transferring inmates to court is a potentially dangerous period. Unlike the situation in Georgia where one person was accompanying the incarcerated defendant, Kruziki said policies at the federal courthouse require at least two deputies to escort in-custody criminal defendants.
"One of the biggest vulnerabilities in most courthouses is taking an inmate through the halls in a public building to court," Kruziki said.
He noted that deputies take great caution to keep their jackets covering weapons, so they are less accessible. Being in a facility such as the federal courthouse, which was not designed with modern security measures in mind, requires establishing and following specific procedures. There will always be a higher ratio of deputies to inmates.
Newer Facilities Incorporate Security
Troy said that the Outagamie Courthouse, built in the late 1990s, was designed with security in mind.
"Here in Outagamie County we are very fortunate having a newer building," he said. "We were able to incorporate some very good security measures that are much more of a challenge to jurisdictions with older courthouses."
The courthouse has a single public entry with a metal detector. It also was designed to provide direct access to the courtrooms from elevators connected to the jail.
"We had a very different situation before we built this building," Troy said. "We were walking felony defendants through the hallways for great distances. We were fortunate nothing happened, but it was just ripe for some kind of incident."
Dane County is in the process of building a new courthouse that will also provide a safer court setting. The existing court facility is located in the City-County Building along with a variety of municipal offices. They did install metal detectors a few years back; however, they do not have a secured area for transporting criminal defendants who are in custody.
Nowakowski said the new courthouse, which will open in January 2006, will feature secured elevators and holding cells. The only time in-custody defendants will have contact with the public will be once they are in the courtroom. The new courthouse will also have a single public entrance with weapons screening. Security procedures have also been established for the delivery entrance.
"Anyone who would design a courthouse without these features would, in my estimation, be negligent in the design they proposed," Nowakowski said.
Clarke has the challenge of securing the two buildings that comprise the court facilities the Milwaukee County Courthouse and the Safety Building. One big issue is the number of entrances to those facilities. Each entrance has weapons screening, he said, but you do not know if there is the same level of security at each check point.
Those stations are operated by the Department of Public Works rather than the Sheriff’s Department.
Clarke’s department does test the security check points from time to time. On several occasions they have managed to get guns through. Despite that, the screening operation has managed to keep out many potential weapons. He said that in 2004 the check points recovered 4,064 box cutters, knives, or razers; 159 chemical irritants; two sets of brass knuckles; 4,030 clippers, scissors, or nail files; and two guns.
"I feel that the courts are safe enough to conduct the administration of justice," Clarke said. "At the same time, no level of security is absolute."
The shootings down in Chicago raise the issue of security outside of the courthouse. Most court officials noted that home security has come up during informal discussions, but they have not addressed it formally.
"Most of us accept some level of vulnerability as part of the job," Troy said. "Different judges react to that concern differently."
Some judges do not alter their home lives much, while others take greater steps to ensure their personal security, he said.
In an effort to help federal judges with personal security, Kruziki said the U.S. Marshal Service has a program where deputies will provide security audits. At a judge’s request, a deputy will come to the jurist’s home and look at vulnerable points
, evaluate alarm systems, review physical aspects of property such as shrubbery which should be cut low for visibility and assess locks on doors and windows.
They also will provide personal safety instruction to help all court personnel become aware of their surroundings and potential threat situations.
Nowakowski acknowledged that there is no formal approach for helping judges with personal security beyond the court setting. However, security outside the courthouse has been a topic of lunchtime discussions among judges.
"In the informal discussions of what took place down in Chicago, we are all painfully aware of the potential for problems," he said.
Tony Anderson can be reached by email.