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Old 04-12-2005, 07:52 PM
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Default Judges call for improved safety at the Walla Walla County Courthouse.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Judges call for tighter security

A recent shooting in Georgia has renewed interest in improved safety at the Walla Walla County Courthouse.

ByTerry McConn of the Union-Bulletin

The deadly rampage in Atlanta last month has renewed interest in heightened security at the Walla Walla County Courthouse.

Superior Court judges Donald W. Schacht and Robert Zagelow said the time has come to take seriously the possibility violence could occur here.

``I'm just concerned we're not immune from this,' Schacht said in a recent interview.

On March 11, Brian Nichols allegedly killed four people, including a judge and court reporter in a Fulton County courtroom, before leading officials on the largest manhunt in Georgia history. Nichols later surrendered.

The killings prompted courthouse officials across the country to review their safety procedures.

Schacht said he has asked for heightened security - particularly on the third floor of the Walla Walla County Courthouse where the two courtrooms are located - for years.

Not only do criminals appear at the hearings, but people often undergo a great deal of stress during divorce and child custody proceedings.

Schacht plans to approach county commissioners again about the issue.

``I want to make some changes to protect everybody in (my) courtroom,' he said.

Schacht intends to ask commissioners to station a security officer on the third floor at all times the courthouse is open. ``That's where the most volatile people are going to be,' he explained.

Zagelow agrees.

``I don't think anybody disputes, in the not-too-distant future, there have to be some major changes,' he said. ``I just don't see any alternative to that.'

Zagelow added that ultimately the entire courthouse should be secured. ``But the problem is manpower.'

Commissioners seconded that motion.

In an interview, commission Chairman Greg Tompkins said he and his colleagues will meet with the judges soon. Commissioners take the matter seriously, but will have difficulty
coming up with money, Tompkins said.

That's particularly true after the county learned last year it will have to reimburse the state about $426,000 because of overpayment of law and justice tax funds.

Then there's the question of how much security is appropriate, Tompkins pointed out. The courthouse has multiple entrances and needs to maintain handicapped and elevator access.

``(Security) is a concern of a lot of people. But I think there's a concern by a lot of people of locking it down completely, too,' Tompkins said.

Those attending certain types of court hearings, such as juvenile matters and domestic issues, have been screened in the hallway for about three years. Court Services personnel from the Juvenile Justice Center and a part-time Sheriff's Office employee use a hand-held metal detector.

During criminal dockets on Monday afternoons, courtroom interiors are guarded by jail officers, some of whom are armed. Jailed inmates appear in handcuffs and shackles. But other defendants summoned to court are not screened as they enter.

Tight security is on hand during the occasional, high-profile case.

``My preference would be every time we have a court hearing, people are searched,' Schacht said.

He plans to discuss the issue with county Sheriff Mike Humphreys.

Both Humphreys and Court Services Director Mike Bates said in interviews they believe adequate security is a good idea. But they aren't able to provide additional staffing from their departments.

``If I was required to do that, that would pull deputies off the road and/or from investigations,' Humphreys said.

He added his office recently polled eight similarly sized counties in the state and found that Walla Walla's present courthouse security is better than some.

Humphreys believes securing the courthouse correctly would be very costly. It would require one entrance and exit, and personnel to operate a metal detector and X-ray machine.

``If you're going to take a Band-Aid approach, something still could happen,' Humphreys said.

That's exactly what worries defense attorney Gail Siemers, who said she has been threatened by defendants and their relatives and friends inside and outside the courtrooms.

``I think (added security) is absolutely necessary,' she said. ``There have been many times we've been flying without a net, as far as I'm concerned.'

In January 1977, a Washington State Penitentiary officer was injured in a law library on the third floor of the courthouse when a booby-trapped cigarette lighter exploded in his hand.

Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Joe Golden said although officials haven't encountered a major problem in recent years, he has received threats.

And he agrees security is ``pretty poor.'

``Probably nothing will ever happen. But it could,' Golden said.

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