One man often is all who stands between those who work in the Racine County Courthouse and the attendant risk that entails.
There are no entrance checkpoints, metal detectors or X-ray machines at the courthouse’s two public entrances. Instead, one armed sheriff’s deputy patrols the 11-story building. The “roving deputy,” as court officials call him, is the primary person responsible for day-to-day court security.
Courthouse staff members say more security measures are needed, particularly entrance screening for weapons.
“Really, truly, we’re wide open,” said Roseanne Lee, Racine County’s clerk of court. “Anybody can walk in with anything.”
That’s not the case, however, across the street at the Racine County Law Enforcement Center. There, visitors must walk through a metal detector while an X-ray machine scans their personal belongings.
A 1997 U.S. Marshals Service report recommended adding the security measures at the law enforcement center, in part, because it’s where the county’s criminal courts are.
“Security requirements increase significantly in this type of environment,” the report stated.
A similar U.S. Marshals’ report recommended the same security procedures for the courthouse.
Yet, 15 years since those recommendations were made, the courthouse’s entrances remain unsecured. Court officials are trying to change that.
Circuit court operations in Racine County principally are divided between the courthouse and the Law Enforcement Center across the street. Civil, mental health, guardianship and juvenile cases are heard at the courthouse; criminal cases at the Law Enforcement Center.
The courthouse is home to county administrative offices such as the county executive, clerk and treasurer — offices that do not raise substantial security concerns. But it also houses small claims court and family court, in which outbursts are common and tension runs high.
“Family court is most dangerous,” Lee said. “You’re dealing with people’s emotions; small claims you’re dealing with people’s money.”
There was a time when courthouse security was a non-issue for smaller counties, said Racine County Circuit Judge John Jude; but that’s no longer the case. Courtroom violence now happens “randomly, periodically and it doesn’t make a difference the size of the county,” he said.
Jude is the chairman of Racine County’s courthouse security committee. The committee is charged, under state Supreme Court rules, with examining security issues in the courthouse and making recommendations to the County Board. Jude has chaired the committee for three years.
“I think it’s just good practice,” he said, “for the safety and protection of court justices and all the participants in it that we make [the courthouse] reasonably secure with the resources that we have.”
Those resources are limited, however, and county officials have not made courthouse security a priority, Jude said.
“It’s a matter of decisions by the County Board about how much money they have available and how they’re going to prioritize their money,” he said. “Those are always issues. We may make certain recommendations, but the county may say we don’t have the money to do that.”
Racine County Circuit Court Judge Allan Torhorst said courthouse security has been a concern since he first became a judge there more than 20 years ago.
“You come to court and expect to be safe when you’re testifying, and that’s really the concern,” he said. “Every day you read about a situation where the security either failed or was lacking, and if you go to a federal courthouse it doesn’t fail because they’ve got all the funds they need. Counties and the state have just lagged on funding security.”
Torhorst agreed that courthouse security seems to be lower on the county’s priority list.
“There’s not enough political impetus to secure the courthouse versus providing food for kids,” he said. “The political pressures come for some other program that either sounds popular or affects more people. So if you’re only affecting the 400 people who work at the courthouse, versus the 10,000 kids at school, you know who gets the funding.”
Given these budgetary realities, Jude said the courthouse has worked to bolster security in ways that cost less.
“When we talk about resources, one resource is money, but there certainly is a lot of other things we can do that we have resources to minimize risk,” he said.
Court officials make sure deputies are in courtrooms during particular hearings and remove certain items from courtrooms that could be used as weapons.
Still, Jude said he would like to see more deputies in the courthouse. The official security presence helps reduce tension and offers a sense of decorum and respect, he said.
“Would we prefer to have a deputy in every courtroom?” Jude asked. “Yes, we would. Is it efficient to have a deputy assigned to every courtroom when, like today, I have one court trial this afternoon? Probably not.”
Working toward specifics
The security committee is working with the county executive, County Board and Sheriff’s Department to follow the recommendations in the 1997 U.S. Marshals’ report. Jude said the Marshals Service and the Department of Homeland Security are in the process of reassessing court security in Racine County and eventually will issue a new report, as well.
“That’s what we really want to do,” Jude said, “is update that report and use those recommendations to move forward with a very specific plan.”
The committee’s goal is to submit the updated security recommendations to the County Board for consideration as part of the 2014 county budget. Jude expects recommendations will include restricting the courthouse’s public entrances from two to one and installing a screening station that all visitors would have to go through.
“I think the energy here and the desire here is to get this courthouse secured,” Jude said. “That’s the goal, and I think everybody’s on board with that.”
Varying levels of security
That Racine’s courthouse lacks entrance security is not unique in Wisconsin.
Most county courthouses in the state do not have security screening at building entrances. According to a 2010 Wisconsin Supreme Court survey of 66 counties, only 21 percent of responding county courthouses had entrance security.
And while some of the most populous counties in the state have entrance security screening, such as Milwaukee, Dane and Waukesha counties, not all do. Brown County, which includes Green Bay and has more residents than Racine County, does not have entrance security.