Gunplay in courtrooms prompts safeguards. SAFETY IN US COURTS

Safety in courtrooms is a matter of growing concern in the United States. While major outbreaks of violence remain relatively rare, enough incidents are occurring that many experts believe more needs to be done to insure courtroom security: Los Angeles County has formed a task force to review security in its roughly 500 courtrooms in the wake of a March 9 gun battle in a suburban municipal court. A man who drew a gun was killed and a bailiff was wounded in the shootout.

A metal detector was installed and security beefed up in a district court in Arapahoe County, Colo., after a shooting there left one dead in January.

New York City officials have tightened the screening of prisoners being brought into courts in the wake of a melee last November. Several court officers were injured while trying to subdue three defendants who brandished makeshift knives in a Brooklyn courtroom.

``I think you are going to see more serious incidents until we get better security and have more awareness that people will take guns into courtrooms,'' says Gilbert Skinner, a Michigan-based security specialist.

Although specific statistics are not available, experts say anecdotal evidence and what peripheral numbers are kept suggest that threats and violence against judges, jurors, witnesses, and others involved in court proceedings continue to be a serious and often overlooked problem.

The United States Marshal's Service, which is responsible for security in federal courthouses, reports that the number of serious threats against court officials rose from 76 in 1981 to 220 in 1987. And 17,000 illegal weapons were seized in federal courtrooms last year.

``There is no question the general trend has been up,'' says the service's William Dempsey.

Yet more incidents occur in lower, and often less-protected, courtrooms. Federal courtrooms often have metal detectors and other high-tech security systems.

Many court shootings stem from domestic disagreements over such matters as child custody and alimony in divorces. In the Colorado case, a man was charged with shooting his ex-wife as they awaited a hearing on child-visitation rights.

``Right now, the majority of incidents are in domestic relations courts,'' says Michael Valentine, chief judge of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court in Fairfax County, Va., who lectures on courtroom security.

The case here in a suburban Van Nuys courtroom was different. A man who had been convicted of charges stemming from a high-speed chase entered the courtroom with an automatic pistol and threatened a prosecutor. A bailiff burst into the room, shots were exchanged, and the man was fatally shot.

Authorities who see an increase in courtroom violence point to several factors. One is the large number of prosecutions of drug dealers, gang members, terrorists, and members of radical groups such as white supremacists. There has also been a sharp rise in the number of domestic relations cases.

Stiffer penalties, often mandated by state legislatures, for those convicted of certain crimes have prompted some defendants to vent their anger on court officers. Yet underlying all this, many say, is the pervasiveness of violence and weapons in society.

``What are you going to do about a culture that stresses violence all the time?'' laments Judge Ron Swearinger, head of the Los Angeles County Superior Court's security committee.

To improve safety, many courts are tapping technology. Most major federal courts, for instance, now have X-ray machines, metal detectors, or other equipment to screen entrants.

Lower courts, however, have been more reluctant to install the devices. This is partly because of cost and partly because of an enduring debate over whether courthouses should be turned into what critics consider ``fortresses.''

Some judges argue that screening at the front door makes a powerful statement that the fight for public order is being lost in the very place it is supposed to be enforced. Others contend it is a small price to pay.

``We have this silly notion of an open society,'' Mr. Skinner says. ``But bank tellers are behind Plexiglas. Freedom sometimes comes with a minor inconvenience.''

Some court jurisdictions are pushing for more guards and better training of security people.

Other ideas are more benign: posting prominent signs that say weapons are illegal, using locks with keys that can't be easily duplicated, limiting the number of entry ways into a building.

All these and more will be looked at by the task force here. Until now, only one Los Angeles County courthouse has used a metal detector and an X-ray machine. But others are moving to install devices even before the group finishes its work.

``We have always run our courts wide open,'' Judge Swearinger says. ``But we've come to a time when our open policy is going to have to be restricted. It's a shame.''

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