Delaware officials have vowed to review security for all state courthouses in the wake of the February 11 shooting at the New Castle County Courthouse in Wilmington, Del. Although it is too soon to know if the shooting will result in any concrete changes, one security analyst says the best way to keep courts safe is to identify and manage violent individuals before they reach the courthouse.
"I don’t know if there is a solution to preventing violent incidents in courthouses," said Steve Swensen, director of the Center for Judicial and Executive Security, or CJES, a St. Paul, Minn., organization that specializes in courthouse security. "We don’t want to secure our courthouses like Fort Knox, so that means incidents can happen. We need to adopt effective response strategies so that when it happens we can minimize the impact."
Swensen said he wasn’t surprised by the February 11 courthouse shooting in which Thomas Matusiewicz killed his former daughter-in-law, Christine Belford, and her friend, Laura Mulford, before killing himself. At the time of the shooting, Thomas Matusiewicz’s son, David Matusiewicz, was engaged in a bitter custody fight with Belford.
David Matusiewicz and his mother, Lenore Matusiewicz, who is the wife of gunman Thomas Matusiewicz, are being held while police investigate to determine if they were involved in the incident.
In an email to Legal sibling publication Delaware Law Weekly, Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Myron T. Steele promised a review of security procedures in all courthouses throughout the state once the investigation into the NCCH murders is completed.
"The security review will take place immediately after the Delaware State Police complete their investigation," he said, noting that the U.S. Marshals Service office did a review of security of all state courthouses. However, he did not disclose what was included in the office’s report.
"This incident shows that we need to gather facts about what happened and review the security, assess needed resources if there are to be changes and re-examine our own employee protocols and drill in response to an incident," he said.
Kelly Bachman, a spokeswoman for Delaware Governor Jack Markell, issued a statement to DLW that also promised that courthouse security review will be forthcoming.
"We expect there will be conversations regarding ways to improve courthouse security and we will certainly be part of those conversations as they come up," she said.
Steele said that all stakeholders in court security will be involved in the review and discussion on possible improvements.
"I contemplate a long list of those having input, including our own employees," he said. "After the facts and suggestions are in, we will consult experts in order to determine where improvements should be made. The review will extend to all courthouses. All courts and their chief judges, Capitol Police, Office of Management and Budget and legislators will be consulted."
However, if security improvements are to be made, it is unclear if the funding would come from the judiciary’s budget, the budget for the Capitol Police, which oversees courthouse security, a third party or elsewhere. Bachman said it would be difficult to know how to budget for security improvements without knowing which improvements need to be made.
"Without knowing what changes might be necessary, it’s not possible to discuss funding sources or timing," she said.
If Delaware does opt to make changes to its security procedures, there are some government programs that could defray certain costs. The U.S. Congress passed the Local Courthouse Safety Act in March 2012. The legislation provides government funds to improve local courthouse security; authorizes a program to train law enforcement officials on how to respond to and prevent violent acts; and gives local access to federal security equipment such as metal detectors and screening devices.
In addition, several states have received funding for courthouse security through federal and state grants, Homeland Security funds or increasing court filings fees in order to generate extra revenue for security.
"The Local Courthouse Safety Act is a great resource in maximizing resources to improve our court security programs," Swensen said.
The Court Security Improvement Act of 2007 is also available to local courts so they can access federal funds to assess security needs, but Swensen noted funding for the program has never entirely been allocated.
One thing that is certain, however, is courthouse violence is on the rise. In 2005, there were 10 violent incidents in state court buildings, according to CJES data. By 2011, the year for which the most recent data was available, that number had jumped to 67 violent incidents.
"It’s getting worse," Swensen said. "Since 2005 to the end of 2012 there have been approximately 400 violent incidents at courthouses that did not involve a shooting. These events included violent assaults, knife attacks, bomb plots and arson."
According to Swensen, it is difficult to secure courthouses, especially when individuals such as Thomas Matusiewicz are determined to harm their intended target. He said the key is to reach out and identify individuals who pose a threat before they carry out their intended plan of destruction.
"We can secure the court floors, but will have incidents in the lobby," he said. "We can secure the lobby, but then we have an incident in the parking lot. The question is how do we go ahead and address the threat risk before they get to the courthouse."
The key to identifying and treating potential threats is contemporary threat management, or CMT, Swensen said. CMT is a procedure developed by the Secret Service to identify and manage individuals who demonstrate signs of violent intent. The U.S. Marshals Service then refined it to account for judicial threat management.
"What we try to do is identify the threat sources based on inappropriate communications, which can be threatening actions or spoken or written words with behaviors being the strongest indicator," Swensen said. "We take these inappropriate communications and intervene through case management strategies. It’s a proactive management to deter and prevent an individual from carrying out the act. That is the key to addressing future incidents."
Although David Matusiewicz had exhibited inappropriate communications in the past, including kidnapping his children and taking them to Mexico and, later, Nicaragua, and forging Belford’s name to obtain a home equity loan, Thomas Matusiewicz was relatively unknown to the police. However, Swensen said by applying CMT to David Matusiewicz, authorities could have learned if Thomas Matusiewicz was also displaying inappropriate communications.
"By implementing CMT, we would see what kind of support the son has," Swensen said. "If we are looking at one family member, we may come across another family member who has the same beliefs and mindset."
Swensen said he was pleased that Delaware was going to review courthouse security and emphasized the need to seek comments from everyone who uses the courthouse.
"If you don’t have a court security committee made up of all your stakeholders, you are wrong," he said. "You want input from all stakeholders to assist security providers and deciding officials. Everybody in the courthouse will have to assume some responsibility for their security and safety."
For more coverage on the New Castle County Courthouse shooting, see the Wednesday edition of Legal sibling publication Delaware Law Weekly.