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Following mass shootings nationwide, Florida Supreme Court strives to keep courtrooms safe

LARGO — Courthouse deputies at security entrances are trained to know danger could be lurking inside every purse or pocket.

They've confiscated swords concealed within wooden canes, knives tucked inside lipsticks and lighters, a vial of pepper spray inside a pen.

Last month, they found a loaded gun.

"We really have to be prepared for anything," said Pinellas sheriff's Sgt. Glenn Ward.

That's the goal for courts nationwide that are heightening security measures in the wake of recent mass shootings. In August, the Florida Supreme Court announced plans for a committee of judges that will evaluate security plans and propose changes to make the state's courts safer.

"There can be no question of its urgency," Chief Justice Jorge Labarga said. "It is underscored by the shock, fear and grief we all have witnessed and experienced this long summer."

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Covering roughly 500,000 square feet, the Pinellas County Justice Center is the county's largest courthouse. With up to 6,000 visitors on a busy day, deputies assigned to guard its halls and 23 courtrooms treat it like their own city beat.

"There are no other members of this agency that know this building the way we do," said Pinellas sheriff's Cpl. Joseph Egger. "There's a behind-the-scenes process."

Security begins as soon as someone steps through the glass doors. Purses, belts, and other belongings are scanned by an X-ray machine. Visitors walk through metal detectors. Hats are hand-searched, sometimes revealing a razor tucked in a seam.

Deputies have confiscated dozens of weapons, some of them dangerous enough to merit criminal charges. Ward and Egger kept some for training purposes.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office is spending $24 million this year to fund its judicial operations, which provide security at the county's three courthouses. The duties of a deputy go beyond standing guard inside courtrooms. They monitor cameras, drive the courthouse perimeter and check bushes, where they've found guns, knives, cocaine, even cash, Ward said.

They also have policies on how to deal with weapons detected at the entrance. Sometimes gun owners with concealed carry permits forget to leave their guns in the car or at home. Other times their explanations don't add up.

"We try to look at the bigger picture. Is it an honest mistake? Is it a valid permit?" Ward said. "Behavioral clues are looked at. The whole thing comes together and we make a decision."

At least two gun incidents have been reported at the justice center this year, Pinellas sheriff's records show.

On July 20, deputies detected the outlines of a gun in a purse. The owner said she "forgot the gun was in that bag," a report reads. She had a valid concealed carry permit for the .22-caliber pink firearm and didn't have a criminal record.

Investigators noted she was "extremely cooperative and apologetic about the incident." They escorted her back to her car to store the gun.

On Sept. 15, the X-ray machine revealed a loaded Ruger .45-caliber handgun, plus a loaded magazine, in lawyer James Lowy's backpack, the Sheriff's Office said.

Lowy was at the courthouse for a Florida Bar hearing after he was suspended amid allegations of misappropriation of funds. He didn't have a concealed weapons permit and told deputies he didn't want to hurt anyone and maintained it was an accident.

Lowy was arrested on a felony charge of carrying a concealed firearm. He is awaiting trial.

Deputies also undergo routine training, including active shooter scenarios. They are prepared for the worst at any time, Ward said.

That happened in May 2008, when a man walked into the downtown St. Petersburg courthouse and opened fire at two bailiffs, injuring one of them. They returned fire, killing the shooter.

Since the shooting, bullet-resistant enclosures have been installed at every courthouse.

"The entrance down there doesn't look anywhere near the way it did that day," Egger said. "No one wants to have their community's name on national media."

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Among the judges on the Florida Supreme Court's committee is Hillsborough Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta, who remembers the lack of security when he began his law career in 1983.

"All these doors were just wide open. People came and went and there was no central entrance or exit," he said. "The world has changed a great deal."

With visitors pouring in throughout the day to resolve often high-stakes issues, a courthouse could become the scene of violence.

"You have family law cases, child custody cases, lawsuits involving emotional subjects," Ficarrotta said. "When you walk these halls, you sense the emotion that thrives throughout the building."

The committee will evaluate security measures such as technology and staffing needs and look at funding options. It will also develop plans for a statewide incident reporting system.

William E. Raftery, a senior analyst at the National Center for State Courts, said other states, such as New York and Pennsylvania, already have similar databases.

"Somebody somewhere needs to be keeping track of this," Raftery said. "Do we see a spike maybe in certain types of court cases? Without having data, you just don't know."

Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com. Follow @lauracmorel.

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