Budget cuts force tough choices on court security

DENISE LAVOIE | 1/13/2010, 6:52 a.m.

It was not the first time a deadly shooting rampage prompted officials to examine security.

In 2005, an inmate being escorted to his rape trial in Atlanta stole a deputy’s gun, shot and killed a judge, sheriff’s deputy and court stenographer, and later, an off-duty federal agent.

That shooting led some courts to add security cameras, install panic buttons for judges, clerks and security officers, and increase training.

Court officials in Maine won’t say how often their metal detectors are unattended, but local defense attorney Robert Ruffner said many days no one is at the door to check for weapons. Maine has not fully staffed its metal detectors for years, but the problem became much worse after sharp budget cuts.

“Until something tragic happens, they are not willing to make the hard choices to give the judicial branch the money it needs,” Ruffner said.

Though in New York, court officials have added officers, going from about 3,600 in 2005 to 4,100 now.

“Post-9/11, this was an area that we simply had to focus on because the safety of everyone in a courthouse is paramount,” said David Bookstaver, a New York state courts spokesman.

For Childers, the loss of deputies in her Alabama courtroom is inconceivable. She began bringing her gun to work after the county commission suggested she have her two female assistants make sure her courtroom is secure by checking that no one unauthorized to be there is inside.

“My comment was, ‘OK, what do they do if they find someone in there?’” she said. “Throw paper clips at them?”

(Denise Lavoie is an AP Legal Affairs Writer)