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In the wake of a series of unsettling breaches of courthouse security around the nation, the Office of Court Administration on Wednesday released a comprehensive set of 47 proposals to better protect New York courthouses. A 10-member task force of court officials offered an amalgam of proposals, both large and small, to bolster security. They ranged from providing all 1,200 state-paid judges with bulletproof benches to insuring that prisoners change into civilian clothes before they are brought to courthouses for appearances. The 51-page report is available on the court system’s Web site at www.courts.state.ny.us. In the last decade, the court system has handled 1,300 threats to judges without any serious disruption of courthouse routine, said Chief Administrative Judge Jonathan Lippman, who ordered the review. But, he added, the recent slaying of a judge and two court employees in an Atlanta courtroom and the murder of the husband and mother of a federal judge in Illinois “prompted a top-to-bottom review of security procedures throughout the state to make sure that we have the most modern, state-of-the-art security procedures possible.” OCA will spend $342 million, or nearly 17 percent of its $2.1 billion budget, for security in the current fiscal year, which ends March 31. There are 3,500 court officers statewide, an all-time high, with 2,500 deployed in New York City. Among the report’s recommendations:
� Expand statewide statutory authorization in 23 counties for defendants to make routine court appearance via video teleconferencing and eliminate a requirement that the defendant consent to the video appearance. � Make crimes against judges and court personnel designed to impede the judicial process aggravated offenses similar to the higher designation given to crimes committed against witnesses, jurors and crime victims. � Establish SWAT-like teams of specially trained court officers to respond to emergencies and serious judicial threats. � Clarify guidelines on the handcuffing of prisoners to require that they be rear-handcuffed at all times except when appearing before a jury or at an extended hearing. � Establish a dormitory facility for the training of court officers upstate. � Issue bullet-resistant vests to all state-paid court officers and develop a way to pay for them. � Develop a “smart” identification card for court employees and attorneys who use photo ID cards to bypass security searches upon entering courthouses. The new cards would use computer technology to identify the card holder and could be canceled electronically once the card holder is no longer entitled to enter a courthouse without being searched. � Study whether state court officers should be subject to ongoing performance standards, including periodic assessment of their physical skills.

Several of the proposals, such as the installation of bulletproof benches and the use of smart cards, will require a significant commitment of funds. Judge Lippman said that OCA is calculating the cost of those proposals as part of the preparation of next year’s budget, which will be submitted to New York Gov. George E. Pataki in December. ONE PROBLEM: USE OF DIFFERENT SECURITY SYSTEM A major area of weakness, the report found, stems from the use of different security arrangements in separate parts of the state. While the state-paid court officers must utilize a set of best practices that have been developed by court officials, OCA’s uniformed court officers do not provide courtroom security throughout the state. OCA court officers are in courts throughout the metropolitan area and at the Court of Appeals in Albany. But in 37 counties, including major cities such as Buffalo, Rochester and Albany, OCA pays local sheriff and police departments to provide courthouse security. Local law enforcement provides security at the Appellate Division courthouse in Rochester. OCA spends $40 million a year in contracting with 69 separate local law enforcement agencies. Though the contracts mandate local police to apply OCA standards in protecting courthouses, the report found practices vary when security is contracted out — a “situation that while understandable, is not desirable,” the report said. The situation in the town and village Justice Courts, where some 2,300 judges sit, is far worse, the report found. In those courts, which are funded entirely by localities and are not a part of the state court system, the report found that “many Justice Courts with relatively high criminal caseloads have either deficient screening equipment and procedures or no screening at all.” Justice Courts employ insufficient uniformed security personnel or no such personnel at all, the report said. The report suggested the New York State Sheriffs’ Association and the New York State Association of Police Chiefs, as well as local officials, work together to institute OCA protocols statewide. Should that process fail, the report suggested OCA take over security in those jurisdictions that need improvement. Although the report mentioned obtaining the affected locality’s consent, OCA has the power to assume the security function on its own, and in fact did so in the five-county 9th Judicial District more than a decade ago. OCA took on court security in the five counties — Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess, Rockland and Orange — after a court rejected a challenge brought by sheriffs in the area. The report, however, noted that a state takeover of courthouse security is fraught with logistical difficulties and is likely to be more costly since more personnel may be needed and officers moving from a local force into the state system may be entitled to higher pay. REDEPLOYMENTS SOUGHT On a different tack, the report urged greater vigilance in monitoring caseload changes and, correspondingly, redeploying court officers to reflect changing needs. Only last year did OCA set the legal groundwork that allowed it to assign new court officers in New York City to either the Supreme Court or the lower courts, including the Family, Criminal and Civil courts. Previously, new recruits worked first in the lower courts, where they were represented by one union, the New York State Court Officers Association, and after several years were eligible for promotion to Supreme Court, where they were represented by another union, the New York State Supreme Court Officers Association. In January 2004, OCA implemented a job classification that allowed new court officers to be assigned anywhere in the city, with a complicated formula established for dividing the new recruits among the two unions. While court officers employed in the lower courts before 2004 can be transferred to Supreme Court, those who were assigned to the Supreme Court before 2004 cannot be involuntarily transferred to lower courts. John McKillop, president of the Supreme Court officers association, said the report’s call for greater flexibility in assignments is a “smoke screen” for OCA’s failure to hire more court officers and the “unconscionably long time” it takes to move them through the testing and training process. While hiring has increased since the mid-1970s, he said, “our responsibilities have increased even more.” Dennis Quirk, head of the court officers association, agreed, saying the report fails to address “the severe shortage of court officers” and the failure to upgrade security equipment. The task force was headed by Lawrence Marks, OCA’s administrative director, and Ronald Younkins, its chief of operations.

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