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Courtroom security depends on degree of acceptable risk

Judicial officials heaped praise on the bailiffs who shot an armed man at the St. Petersburg courthouse Wednesday.

They also say courthouse security is not airtight. In fact, budget woes recently forced Sheriff Jim Coats to cut some security measures at local courthouses.

While the St. Petersburg and 49th Street courthouses have metal detectors at the front doors, the county's three other courthouses do not. People must pass through metal detectors to get to courtrooms, but otherwise face no security restrictions.

When asked what could have happened had the gunman headed to one of those courthouses, Clerk of the Court Ken Burke said: "I'd prefer not to think about that."

Florida law requires sheriffs to protect judges, but does not require them to protect other courthouse employees.

Burke says his 640 employees are at risk because they sometimes deal directly with emotional people going through rough times — divorce, child custody, criminal trials.

But Burke, whose office is at the downtown Clearwater government center and courthouse that has no metal detectors at the entrances, says he has no plans to ask for additional security and will leave the issue in the hands of the Pinellas County Commission.

Coats said he will review security measures to see if changes need to be made. But with limited funds, courthouses always will be vulnerable, he said.

For instance, Burke said the Clearwater courthouse has as many as 20 entrances. Should the county put a metal detector and bailiffs at each entrance? Or close them all down and funnel everyone into one door? Both options would cost millions.

"Where do you draw the line?" Coats asked.

Violence at courthouses became a problem in the 1980s when people got more gutsy with guns and criminals faced more mandatory sentences, giving people with nothing to lose an incentive to attack.

It took a while for security measures to catch up. Security increased again after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Florida had two courthouse shootings in 1987, one in Pasco County in which a man shot his wife to death in the foyer.

Wednesday's shooting was the first anyone could remember in Pinellas County.

Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Robert Morris said he thinks security measures should be reviewed because Wednesday's shooting "brought our worst fears to the forefront."

But he also understands the budget constraints.

"It's a question of how much risk are you willing to accept and how much risk can you afford to eliminate," Morris said.

County Commissioner Ken Welch said the county was reviewing security after the state Legislature passed a law allowing people to bring guns to work in their cars.

Times staff writer Will Van Sant contributed to this report.

. fast facts

Courthouse violence

2005: A man wrested a gun away from a deputy in an Atlanta courthouse and shot and killed a judge, court reporter and deputy.

1987: A Florida judge was shot and killed by a man upset after an alimony hearing in Gulf County. The man also shot his ex-wife's divorce attorney and sister.

1987: A man going through a divorce shot and killed his wife in the foyer of the Pasco County courthouse.

1983: An Illinois judge was shot to death in his courtroom by a disgruntled former Chicago police officer who had a divorce case in front of the judge. The man also shot his wife's divorce attorney.

1970: A superior court judge was killed in California after an armed teenager stormed a courtroom and tried to free a man on trial.

Courtroom security depends on degree of acceptable risk 05/07/08 [Last modified: Thursday, May 8, 2008 2:23pm]
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