Recent Violence Spotlights Judges' Vulnerability

Nachtigal said the American Judges Association advocates similar personal precautions, and there often have been times when she took extra steps at work. "I have had cases where it has been identified to me that one party made threats against another party or had a propensity for acting out," she said. "I've asked for increased security in the courtroom in cases where the individual, because of the nature of the crime, required greater security."

The association surely will focus more closely on courthouse safety, she said, including how courts can prevent future incidents and who should have weapons in the courtroom. She noted that if an armed plainclothes officer were to try to intervene in a situation, it would be difficult for security to know if he or she were on their side.

What Can Be Done?

In an incident such as the Atlanta shootings, the security measures in place did not prevent the suspect from overpowering a deputy and gaining a firearm. And not all courts have armed guards present.

Timm Fautsko, a Colorado court consultant who serves on the principal staff at the National Center for State Courts, said practices vary widely and are decided locally.

"There are two different opinions in terms of weapons in courtrooms," Fautsko said. "One philosophy, you want a marshal or bailiff or someone in a courtroom who is armed. A lot of judges say they do not want any weapons in their courtroom."

Jimmie Barrett, court security supervisor with the Arlington County, Va., sheriff's office and vice president of the Affiliated Court Officers and Deputies Association, said a key for protection is to assess what kinds of cases are on each day's dockets, though it's not an exact science.

"It's very subjective," he said. "It depends on each case. Obviously, with charges of capital murder, child molestations, rape, you know there are going to be sensitive issues. [With a] child custody or divorce case, it's harder to assess. You rely on attorneys."

Though they stressed that a full investigation into the Atlanta incident is needed, security experts said changes can be expected.

"Certainly, there are things that could have been done," said Harold Copus, a former FBI special agent who is president of Investigative Solutions Inc., an Atlanta security agency. "I'm sure when it's finished, all sorts of changes are going to have to occur, not only here in Atlanta but across the country.

"At a minimum, you'll see we have to have extra personnel and more screening," Copus added. "There's just no way we can allow [just] one deputy in a courtroom, especially in a criminal matter."

Mike Hodge, a retired secret service agent and former Marine who works with the security professionals group ASIS International, said officers might need more training on weapons retention, a key to courtroom safety.

"I do know that courthouses around the country do a very good job," Hodge said. "Unfortunately, this was just a very bad incident. These deputies are escorting folks every single day. It takes a lot to be completely aware at every moment."

Judges Carry On

In the meantime, cases will continue to be heard in courtrooms across the country, and judges will deal with security in their own ways.

"Some judges do take training and carry a weapon," Dressel said, "but I would say the vast, vast majority don't go to that measure to arm themselves."

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