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WASHINGTON — For the first time since the murder of a Chicago judge’s family and a shooting spree at an Atlanta courthouse that left a judge and two others dead, a group of judges, court administrators, prosecutors and security officials met in Washington last week at a summit with a single subject: How to keep the courts safe. “If you are not frightened, then there is something wrong with you,” said Deborah Sines, an assistant U.S. attorney in the District who said she has experienced several threats from defendants over the years, one of which resulted in a year-long security detail. The National Summit on Court Safety and Security brought together more than 100 members from all sectors of the court community, including over 20 judges, to discuss safety and security issues and to grapple with how to protect judges, court employees and other citizens while still maintaining public access in and around America’s courthouses. The group plans to release a list of recommendations in a few months. Coming just more than a month after the shooting deaths of Georgia state Judge Rowland Barnes, his court reporter and a sheriff’s deputy inside an Atlanta courtroom and the murder of the husband and mother of federal Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow in Chicago, summit attendees who gathered at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center stressed that judges and court security officers must work together to ensure that proper protective procedures are in place to prevent similar tragedies from recurring. “I have heard people ask recently if this is a real problem,” said William Dressel, a former judge and current president of the National Judicial College, which trains and educates judges. “I have seen a person who seems completely innocuous and within 30 seconds had trashed an entire courtroom. This is not something that comes up once in a great while.” ON THE TABLE Discussions at the summit ranged from screening methods used to assess whether courthouse visitors are carrying weapons to funding for additional security measures to whether security officers should carry guns. Panelists debated the kinds of security efforts that have worked in their jurisdictions, and the ones that haven’t. For example, jurisdictions all over the country have turned to various screening procedures for people entering the courthouse, including X-ray machines and criminal background checks. Judge Jonathan Lippman, chief administrative judge in New York state, said the most vocal opposition to the enhanced screening doesn’t come from the public, but from attorneys, judges and court personnel who complain about delays and long lines. Some jurisdictions have tried to get around the complaints by granting courthouse regulars special privileges to bypass screeners or by instituting express lanes for certain frequent court visitors, but the panelists agreed that these attempts at streamlining may not be prudent or fair. “There is no such thing as total security, but there is such a thing as a minimum level of security you can put in place,” Lippman said, “and it should apply to everyone.” Judge Jane Roth, who chairs the Security Committee of the U.S. Judicial Conference, echoed that sentiment. “Although the judge is the boss in the courtroom,” she said, “it is important to have a standard that is determined by those who are security officers. When you start making exceptions to the practice, you get into trouble.” But even effective screening could not have prevented the tragedies in Atlanta and Chicago. Judge Barnes was killed with a gun taken from a sheriff’s deputy who was escorting a defendant to a trial — a situation that illustrates why court deputies are not armed in many jurisdictions. According to John Zaruba, chairman of the National Sheriffs Association’s Court Security Committee, in most courthouses, only roving security personnel are armed, and those specially trained personnel never come in contact with defendants. But in the wake of the shootings in Atlanta, an increasing number of jurisdictions are calling for more armed guards inside the courthouse, Zaruba said, believing that had more armed security officers been on the scene, the carnage could have been avoided or lessened. LOOKING OUTSIDE But security inside the courthouse is only one aspect of ensuring safety for judges and others in the courthouse community. Zaruba said that security plans must take into account the front of the building and the parking lot, among other places. An inadvertent yet potentially dangerous security slip, he said, is the marking of judges’ parking spaces. He cited another example of a possible security breach that isn’t often considered. If a judge’s chambers does not have tinted windows and is located off a parking lot, Zaruba said, then it could be a target for a sniper who doesn’t have to enter the building or go through screening. Off-site security has been an issue of considerable concern, especially among federal judges. In the past 25 years, three federal judges have been killed — all at their homes. The murder of Judge Lefkow’s family in her Chicago home is only the most recent incident. According to the U.S. Marshals Service, which is charged with protecting judges, an estimated 700 threats and inappropriate communications are made to judicial officials each year. Of these, about 20 are serious enough to warrant a protective detail and about 12 of them require round-the-clock protection. The Marshals Service also provides, upon request, security reviews of federal judges’ homes in which experts make recommendations about landscaping and alarm systems. But a lack of funds may get in the way of enhancing security. Federal judges have long complained about chronic understaffing and underfunding for the Marshals Service. Earlier this month, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a $12 million request from the Judicial Conference of the United States to provide increased protection in homes and courtrooms of federal judges; an earlier House bill did not provide additional funds. President George W. Bush’s 2006 budget requested about $7.4 million for 65 new marshals to provide security. But for many state and local courts that receive state funding, money to improve courthouse security comes at the expense of other programs. “It is hard for smaller counties,” said Dow Constantine, a King County, Wash., Council member who spoke at the security summit. “It is irrational that only big counties have security and smaller rural counties don’t. . . . These shootings are irrational too.” Many court-related shootings, Constantine said, stem from relatively routine court matters, such as divorces, foreclosures or neighbor disputes, issues that affect all types of people, regardless of geography. One suggestion supported by summit attendees was to earmark part of the money states receive from the Department of Homeland Security for security improvements in courthouses. “If you have a letter in your file from the fire marshal, then those problems would be addressed immediately,” said Marcus Reinkensmeyer, a trial court administrator from Maricopa County, Ariz. “We need to elevate court security to the same level of urgency.” Bethany Broida is a reporter with Legal Times, a Recorder affiliate based in Washington, D.C.

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