Gender of Officer Not the Issue

May 10, 2005 — -- Brian Nichols has been described as a large, strong, former linebacker.

He allegedly overpowered a female deputy who was escorting him to his rape trial at the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta on March 11. He is accused of fracturing her skull, taking her gun and then killing four others -- three as he left the courthouse and another as he spent the night on the run.

Nichols is expected to appear in Fulton County Superior Court today for a hearing.

Could the alleged crime spree have been prevented if he had been escorted by a male deputy? Law enforcement experts and Nichols' own lawyer think not.

Barry Hazen, who represented Nichols in the rape case, told WSBTV in Atlanta that Nichols is a "big, strong guy. Even the larger deputies I don't think would be any match for Brian Nichols."

Cynthia Hall, the court deputy, is about 5 feet tall compared with Nichols, who is more than 6 feet tall and weighs more than 200 pounds. According to officials, Nichols attacked Hall when they stopped in a holding cell and she removed Nichols' handcuffs.

He then allegedly killed three others -- the judge presiding over his case, a court reporter and a deputy who confronted him as he fled the building. Later, Nichols killed a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, officials said. He was taken into custody the next morning after allegedly holding a woman hostage, then freeing her. She contacted police.

Experts say broader security weaknesses are at fault in this case rather than the sex or size of the deputy escorting the defendant. Days before, Nichols had been found with two homemade knives in his shoes when he was returned to the county jail, prompting the judge and prosecutors to request extra security.

However, authorities have said Nichols was not in handcuffs or shackles as he was being moved to the courtroom for fear of tainting the jurors.

"That was an inherently reckless and dangerous security situation," said George Kirkham, professor emeritus at the Florida State University School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and a former police officer. "No officer should be escorting a dangerous criminal by themselves.

"When you find people trying to smuggle knives, that's a huge flashing red light. There should have been more deputies guarding him," he said.

Most physical situations that a police officer gets in do not require "brute strength," according to Kirkham. It mostly comes down to speed, agility, the equipment on hand and training.

Margaret Moore, the director of the National Center for Women and Policing, denies that gender makes an officer more or less susceptible to assault or being overtaken by an inmate.

Acknowledging she had not read any official documentation of the Nichols incident, Moore's assessment matched that of Kirkham.

"It seems it was a procedural error. Man or woman, Nichols was not handled correctly," she said.

Moore explained that strength is relative -- a situation like this is not about gender, but about the strength of the officer, she said.

With the size difference between Hall and Nichols, it seems more manpower could have helped to prevent this situation.

Senior Superior Court Judge Philip F. Etheridge, calling for security reform, summed it up. "You don't put a grandmother in charge of a linebacker alone," he told the Los Angeles Times.

Not the First Time

In January 2004, a rookie officer at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis let two inmates disguised as guards into the guards' watchtower.

Ricky Wassenaar and his cellmate Steven Coy, held two officers hostage. They let Jason Auch, the rookie, go after a week, but kept Lois Fraley as a hostage for 15 days -- raping, beating and starving her.

"Men get raped in prisons too," Moore said. Most of these situations stem from procedural or tactical mistakes, she said. "There is something to be learned out of all of these situations."

In a March 14 statement, Norman S. Fletcher, chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, acknowledged the needed security reforms. "If there is any good that can come from last Friday's tragic loss of life," he said, "it should be a renewed effort to safeguard the lives of the men and women who serve the people of this state at considerable risk to their own personal safety and well being."