THE MAGAZINE

You Be the Judge

By Mary Alice Davidson

Imagine this: A courthouse security control room is staffed by two officers, one of whom is also an emergency medical technician (EMT). One morning, an altercation occurs in another part of the courthouse, and a prisoner is injured. Sheriff’s deputies assigned to guard these prisoners summon the EMT, who leaves the control room.

Shortly thereafter, a supervisor asks the second officer to leave the control room to get her breakfast, not an unusual request; no one realizes that the control room is now without staff.

Another deputy, transporting a handcuffed defendant to court, arrives at the control room, finds it empty, and uses a key to enter the holding cell area. She also uses a key to unlock a gun box, where she deposits her gun.

The observant prisoner attacks his guard, takes the keys along with the deputy’s gun and radio, changes into street clothes, and enters the courtroom for his trial. He holds more than a dozen people hostage. He opens fire, killing a judge and a court reporter, while alarms that had been triggered in the judge’s chambers are ignored due to frequent false alarms.

After fleeing the courthouse, the prisoner continues to wreak havoc, fatally shooting another sheriff’s deputy and a federal agent before being apprehended in a manhunt that spans five states.

As improbable as this scenario sounds, it’s not fiction. It’s what the investigating commission pieced together as the likely sequence of events that occurred when Brian Nichols went on his alleged rampage at Atlanta’s Fulton County Courthouse on March 11, 2005.

The incident is but one of a number of high-profile shootings on courthouse property that have made headlines in recent years. Each time, the media shine a spotlight on the state of courthouse security nationwide. The real question is whether courthouses are getting the message—that security has to shine even when not in the media spotlight.

“Atlanta was an impetus for everyone to look at their court systems,” says Gregory Sanders, CPP, headquarters security advisor for the United Nations Development Programme and a member of the ASIS International Crime and Loss Prevention Council. Sanders, who previously managed security for the New Jersey supreme and appellate courts, notes that communities with adequate financial resources have revamped programs, “but it definitely takes newsworthy events to cause significant change.”

The potential for violence is high in both federal and state courts. “It’s an emotionally charged environment,” says Drew Levine, president, security services division, Wackenhut Corporation. “Rarely are people there for good news.”

Given that the threat is not likely to abate, what is being done?

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