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In response to concerns over the recent shooting in an Atlanta courthouse and the attack on a federal judge’s family in Chicago, New York Chief Administrative Judge Jonathan Lippman announced Thursday the formation of a task force to review court security issues. Judge Lippman stressed that the recent, much-publicized attacks did not raise any issues of particular concern. Rather, the incidents served as a reminder that, three-and-a-half years after 9/11, security remains an ongoing matter. “We don’t see those incidents as showing us we have a fatally flawed security unit,” he said. “We think we have a good solid system in place, but we want to be doubly sure.” He added, “We view [the task force] as not resting on our laurels, and recognizing that something can happen anywhere, particularly at courthouses, which are a symbol of justice in this country.” As the task force’s co-chairman, Office of Court Administration Chief of Operations Ronald Younkins put it, “We can always do better.” The nine-member Task Force on Court Security will oversee the work of seven committees, each of which will investigate and report on a separate area of concern. The panels will look at training, legislation, threats on the judiciary, contract security, facilities and technology, equipment and procedures, and security staffing and deployment. Other committees may be created if new issues arise. The committees’ members are “people in the court system that have some kind of expertise that is relevant” to the particular subject, according to Younkins. For example, the OCA’s legislative counsel, Marc Bloustein, sits on the legislation committee; the head of the court officer’s training academy, Joseph Baccelieri, is a member of the training committee. OCA’s Administrative Director Lawrence Mark will serve as Younkins’ co-chair. In all, 20 people will work for the task force and its committees, with many sitting on more than one panel. Each committee will prepare a report, which the task force will incorporate into a final summary. The summary will be made public, Younkins said, except for provisions that must be redacted for security reasons. The first meetings are scheduled for next week and the final document should be released in 60 to 90 days. The task force reflects a nationwide movement to reassess courtroom security. Last week, the Judicial Conference of the United States, presided over by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, focused on security issues. On Wednesday, the National Center for State Courts issued a list of 10 “essential elements for court safety,” which called for, among other things, increased funding and revised threat assessment systems. The renewed emphasis on security notwithstanding, New York judges, jurors and court officials have expressed little or no anxiety about heading to court this week. Vincent Homenick, the chief clerk of the Division of Jurors for Manhattan, said that prospective jurors appeared wholly unconcerned. “We interview thousands of jurors here a day and, ironically, nobody’s even brought it to my attention,” he said. “I thought it would be a concern, [as] some people are just a little apprehensive to come down here to begin with.” Homenick polled his department’s six juror interviewers, who are responsible for screening 1,800 potential jurors daily, and reported that not one juror had mentioned the shootings. An informal poll of state Supreme Court judges found a similar dearth of panic. “I think we’re not like Georgia. Our officers don’t wear guns when they go to pick up a prisoner, we never have [only] one officer in the courtroom with a prisoner, and there’s no way a prisoner could get out of the building,” said Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Anne G. Feldman. “I can’t think of anything else that we can do.” Justice Neil J. Firetog, the chief administrative judge for Brooklyn and Staten Island, echoed those sentiments. “Our procedures in Brooklyn are very different [from Atlanta's],” he said. “By and large, I think we’re in very good shape.” Lippman said that the investigation represents a permanent, ongoing process. “We’re not going to hysterically do things that are not indicated,” he said. But, he added, “If things are indicated, you can bet your bottom dollar we’re going to do it.” Mark Zauderer, a partner at DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary and the chair of the Commission on the Jury, which was convened by Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, stressed the need for the appearance of safety, as well as safety itself. Though “encouraged” by the results of Homenick’s informal survey of jurors, Zauderer emphasized a need to maintain an ongoing sensitivity to jurors’ concerns. “What I’m concerned about, and why I think we need to have our ear to the ground, is the public perception, particularly [jurors],” he said. They should “not be fearful of performing their functions, that something could get out of control in the courtroom.” Various people within OCA cited the panel created following Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks as an example of the efficacy of OCA task forces. That group’s investigation resulted in major changes to the state court’s security system, such as ensuring that each facility has a variety of technologies for communicating during an emergency. The courts also installed explosion detection devices and high-tech security cameras throughout the court system, as well as “a lot of things we don’t necessarily talk about,” said Lippman. Though confident that New York’s courts ranks among the safest, Lippman cautioned against thinking that any plan is foolproof or that the court’s $340 million projected security budget should be radically redirected. “You never say never,” he said. “I think that what you can say is that the type of circumstance that happened in Atlanta should not happen here.”

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