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.

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. "We've been fortunate that we haven't had [anybody] killed."

In Harnett County, N.C., concerns from judges prompted the county's decision last week to allot $300,000 to build and staff a new annex at its courthouse.

It's hard for Ed Tinsley, county commissioner in Lewis and Clark County, Mont., to imagine some of his state's more rural commissioners approving an expense of that kind. Fiercely independent, most Montana counties still use courthouses built in the 1800s.

Last year Mr. Tinsley was part of a statewide commission on courthouse security. Among its suggestions: Remove the judge's name from the parking space, and ensure that panic buttons and other safety measures operate.

"By virtue of us doing these simple fixes, we're never going to know the good that comes of it, we'll only know the bad things that come from what we didn't fix," says Tinsley. "But out here, we have to adapt and overcome with what we've got, and we're doing OK."

A committee assigned to investigate the Atlanta courthouse shootings revealed that Nichols exploited what some say were security weaknesses in one of the nation's busiest courthouses. The grandmotherly deputy assigned to take him from his holding cell should not have been armed, but she was. The two deputies assigned to watch the TV screens of his cell were not at their posts.

Since last year, eight deputies have been fired at the Atlanta courthouse, and new cameras have been hooked up in most areas. But more precautions need to be taken, some say.

"There's a great lack of education with these deputies and it's not their fault," says Dennis Scheib, an Atlanta attorney who anticipated a problem in the city's courthouse and described what could happen in a letter to a local paper two years before the Nichols incident. "It doesn't seem like [county officials] have learned a lot by what has happened."

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