Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Year after Atlanta Shootings, Courthouse Security Is 'Spotty' ; Lack of a National Safety Standard Is Hindering Security Improvements in America's Courthouses, a Report States

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Year after Atlanta Shootings, Courthouse Security Is 'Spotty' ; Lack of a National Safety Standard Is Hindering Security Improvements in America's Courthouses, a Report States

Article excerpt

One year ago, 200-pound computer engineer and alleged rapist Brian Nichols exposed in a few minutes the vulnerability of America's courthouses.

Mr. Nichols's rampage at the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta on March 11, 2005, left three people dead, including county judge Rowland Barnes. The incident sparked a national soul searching about how to protect US courthouses.

A year later one of the biggest problems impeding courthouse security is that there is no national protocol for how to properly staff and safeguard courthouses, according to a National Center for State Courts report released last month.

"Security improvements across the country have been spotty" since the Atlanta shootings, says Don Hardenbergh, a court security expert in Virginia. "What it usually always comes back to is lack of resources."

Most courthouses are funded by local taxpayers. To help counties buy necessary equipment and cover other expenses, Congress established grants of $60 million a year until 2010. It also stiffened penalties against those who commit crimes in court- houses, including up to 10 years in prison for making a threat against a judge. Since then, some county courthouses have installed metal detectors and video equipment to conduct remote arraignments.

There were nearly 700 serious threats nationwide made against judges in 2005, according to the US Marshall Service. The family of a judge in Chicago was slain by a disgruntled defendant last year.

Sheriff Ronnie White in Phillips County, Ark., knows how dangerous a courthouse can be. A few weeks ago, according to the sheriff, a man with a vendetta against a local peace officer attacked the officer's wife in the courthouse, which is staffed primarily by unarmed women.

It can get particularly rowdy during divorce and juvenile hearings, Sheriff White says. "You take a man and a woman without love and they start talking about who's going to get the kids, the Cadillac, and the pickup truck and feathers get all ruffled up," he says. …

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