Safety constantly scrutinized in South Lake Tahoe courtrooms
Courtroom security may be trial and error when a gunman goes berserk. But South Shore court officials believe El Dorado County may be safe from incidents like Atlanta’s courthouse killing spree last week.
When it comes to courthouse safety, one can never go far enough.
That’s why state budget cuts make the county and the judges they’re assigned to protect a little nervous when a courthouse vulnerability claims lives. In two years, California has pulled back $11 million earmarked for court security statewide. In El Dorado County, the cuts amount to 3.5 percent – that’s $46,000 less than the prior year.
“Our security funding has never been adequate. What happened in Atlanta has underscored our concern in our neck of the woods,” said Steve Cascioppo, department director of the El Dorado County Superior Courts.
El Dorado County is among the 40 percent of jurisdictions complying with state mandates, bailiff Jerry Murphy noted on a tour of the building Monday with Sgt. Bruce Rosa.
Improvements are usually made incrementally through staff suggestions. But sometimes all the security in the world won’t make a difference.
“If someone comes in with a gun with the intent of firing at a judge, they have exactly the mentality of a school shooter,” Murphy said.
On a scale between 1 and 10, local judges and county deputies ranked the South Lake Tahoe courthouse as an 8, with 10 being top-level security. Murphy, who’s spent two years in the courts system, describes its security as a work in progress.
It starts with the front entry. More than five years ago, metal detectors were installed with a bypass for sworn personnel, attorneys, public defenders and district attorneys. That changed last November when the bypass was eliminated, except for police officers.
In Atlanta suspected gunman Brian Nichols was reported earlier to have a knife on him.
“We would consider him a ‘redman’ requiring two people (to monitor him),” Rosa said. Nichols apparently had one assigned.
Rosa also emphasized how inmates’ clothes go back in the jail for court appearances. That was not the case in Georgia. Reports have also indicated Nichols’ handcuffs were removed for changing his clothes.
Murphy and Rosa also reinforce the cuffs with belly chains to restrict movement in the arms. The sergeant wants to see tasers carried by court officers.
Both officers believe there’s a distinct advantage to having a corridor between the jail and courthouse to alleviate mistakes transporting inmates.
“The prime reason we’re safer is our inmates don’t have to go out in public,” Murphy said.
When an inmate is escorted by a bailiff, employees are trained to turn around and provide the right-of-way to them.
The courts will be coming out with a disaster plan in the next few months. There are also security measures to be added within the year that affect door entries, bullet-proofing benches and communication between judge and bailiff. Specifics of the latter are undisclosed for personnel safety.
Some courtrooms rate higher than others in the officers’ books. Department 12, where family law cases are heard, has the advantage of built-in concrete walls where deputies can take cover in the event of a shooting.
“If there would ever be a volatile situation, it would be here,” Rosa said.
In contrast, Department 11 has a poor layout for security, the officers pointed out. The traffic and small claims courtroom once served as a court clerk’s office.
“The layout of the court makes a huge difference,” Murphy said. “I’d like to see this torn out and designed as a courtroom. That would make it safer, but financially, I don’t know if this is in the cards. The only thing I can do is shoot ’em. There’s nowhere to take cover.”
Murphy has laid out a plan for the judges and court reporters in the event of a melee.
“We’ve told the judges if there’s ever a shooting they’re to hit the floor and crawl out, and the bailiffs will take a position,” Murphy said of the main courtroom downstairs.
Superior Court Judge Suzanne Kingsbury welcomes the communication, especially with an at-risk inmate found with a weapon like Nichols.
“First, I would hope that something of that nature would be brought to my attention, and I would meet with all the players,” she said. “I think there’s a tendency that prisoners come in seemingly compliant and they can relax their guard around them.”
Kingsbury finds the scenario here unlikely but cautioned to “never say never” and always assess the risk.
She’s received one verbal threat on the bench. When she practiced law 20 years ago, the South Lake Tahoe courthouse had one notable escape by a rape suspect, Lindsey Horst, who was later caught.
“(In Atlanta,) there seemed to be serious breaches of security in every step of the way,” she said. “But when something like that happens, you understand what the ramifications can be.”
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