Pitkin reassesses courtroom security
A rash of courtroom-related violence across the country has made the local court system revisit security procedures, but Pitkin County officials have decided current safety measures are adequate.Last week’s triple homicide in an Atlanta courtroom by a rape suspect closely followed the murder of a Chicago judge’s husband and mother allegedly by a man upset at a past ruling.Tom Grady, director of operations for the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, coordinates all of the security efforts in the Pitkin County Courthouse. He says the security plans that are currently in place will remain so – without any changes for now – in the wake of the nationally publicized events.”There is nothing we can change,” he said on Wednesday, indicating complete confidence in the already-in-place security procedures at the courthouse.Primarily, Grady notes, Pitkin County jailers are a de-escalating influence on inmates because of the close working relationship they create with suspects. Inmates are screened closely for weapons, and even during the most high-security hearings, the only people they come in contact with besides their attorney are the county’s unarmed jailers.In Pitkin County, Clerk of Courts Hans Jessup said he has felt comfortable in the courts during his seven months on the job. He said the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office handles all security procedures.”We have the police and sheriff’s office in the bottom of this building, and they’ve always been willing to provide whatever the court desires,” he said. “The courts always have potential for [danger] but people who come into our courts are always very civil. We’re low key, but it works.”Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey of the Colorado Supreme Court released a statement Wednesday about the recent incidents, expressing concern about the trend.”This is a very disturbing trend of violence directed at the courts, judges, attorneys, and everyone associated with them. At its most basic level, this is an attack on the rule of law and the American belief that disputes are resolved peacefully through court litigation, not by the use of force.”The statement says security at courthouses in Colorado is a cooperative effort involving law enforcement, county officials and the courts, with the primary concern being the safety of all who use the courts.”We will be re-evaluating facilities in light of the recent trend of violence directed toward the judiciary,” the statement concludes.As for the shootings in Atlanta, Grady said that since the courts there frequently deal with violent offenders, their security plan becomes more routine, and they may have been more susceptible to making mistakes. Suspect Brian Nichols was allegedly caught with makeshift knife blades in the county jail two days before the shootings occurred, something that would mean full restraints and extensive searches of an inmate in Pitkin County.”Here, a high-risk inmate gets our full attention,” Grady said, noting that it doesn’t happen very often. The last time the Pitkin County district courtroom saw full security was in 2002, when Meredith resident Andrew Kachik was tried and convicted for first-degree murder.A metal-detector greeted jurors and the public outside the entrance door, and deputies refused to let anyone into the courtroom after proceedings had begun. In addition, Kachik was led in and out of the courtroom through a rear entrance in the clerk’s office, rather than coming in contact with the general public.Grady’s job is a multilayered task when it comes to high-profile, high-risk cases, since not only must the court and public be protected from the defendant, but the defendant must be protected from the public. Often times relatives of a victim might want to retaliate against a suspect, he said.But security also occurs in light of whatever a judge wants to see in his or her courtroom. Though the more “high risk” an inmate is the more likely he or she is to appear in full restraints – including chains around wrists and ankles – ultimately the judge makes the final decision about appearances. Objectivity is also a priority.”You have to remember that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty,” he said. “It’s the judge’s call on dress and weapons – you don’t want to run into a mistrial based on appearances. Someone needs to be presented to the court with an objective view, rather than just as an inmate. You don’t want things stacked up like he’s the Son of Sam with a noose already hanging around his neck.”During Grady’s 20 years in the Pitkin County Courthouse, he said, no judge has allowed a deputy – uniformed or otherwise – to stand near the jury or bench during a trial as a level of protection from the defendant. It would be obvious, he said, that the person is a cop, raising suspicions about the defendant’s guilt in the jury’s mind.Jailers do, however, sit in the front row nearest the defendant, and plain-clothed, armed police are often in the courtroom sitting with the general public for court appearances of high-risk defendants. As many as eight deputies may be inside a courtroom as a basic security measure for high-risk defendants.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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