Las Vegas courthouse shooting highlights rising threat

A gunman opened fire at a Las Vegas federal courthouse Monday, injuring a US marshal and killing a security officer. Threats to federal judges and prosecutors have more than doubled since 2003, according to a recent Justice Department report.

Steve Marcus/Reuters
Traffic on Las Vegas Boulevard North is diverted away from the Lloyd D. George Federal Courthouse in downtown Las Vegas, Nevada after a fatal shooting there on Monday.

Monday’s fatal shooting at a federal courthouse in Las Vegas comes amid rising threats to US and state judges, and as court systems across the country are struggling to improve security.

Details of the shooting at the Lloyd George US Courthouse and Federal Building in Las Vegas on Monday are still emerging. But reports indicate that a lone gunman started firing around 8 a.m. in the building’s lobby, killing a security officer and wounding a US marshal. The gunman was later killed in a shootout in which at least 20 shots were fired, according to the Associated Press (AP).

Federal authorities say they don't yet know the shooter's motive. US Sen. John Ensign (R) of Nevada told reporters at a news conference outside the building that the gunman appeared to acting alone, and that "he didn't get past security," according to the AP.

Threats to federal judges and other court personnel have increased dramatically in the past six years, growing from 592 in 2003 to 1,278 in 2008, according to a December report by the US Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General.

“It is getting more dangerous,” Timothy Fautsko, a security expert with the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) who also works with federal officials, says of the situation inside American courthouses.

The Justice Department report also found inconsistencies in how the US Marshals Service, which is tasked with federal courthouse security, responded to the threats and also in how judges reported threats against them.

“While threats against federal court officials have continued to increase in the past several years, we found critical deficiencies in the department’s threat response program,” Inspector General Glenn Fine said in a statement to Reuters.

Several high-profile attacks in recent years have highlighted the problem of court security. In February 2005, a man who was disgruntled over US District Judge Joan Lefkow's dismissal of his medical malpractice suit shot and killed her mother and husband at the judge's home in Chicago. Just days later, in Atlanta, a man facing a rape conviction shot and killed a judge, court deputy, and court reporter.

Both cases brought about new measures to improve security in the US justice system. The Georgia case led to, among other things, additional courthouse cameras and greater officer training. The Chicago killings compelled federal officials to spend $12 million to provide judges with greater security and to ensure alarm systems could be installed in their homes.

The Las Vegas courthouse was the first federal building built to comply with blast resistance requirements following the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, the AP reports.

But while many courts have made the necessary changes to address the threats, more needs to be done, Mr. Fautsko says. “Courts are starting to get more and more cognizant that they need to increase their security,” he says.

The NCSC would like to see all courts adhere to its universal screening guidelines which suggest that everyone – including judges – be screened before entering a courthouse, he says.


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