Local judges worried over their courtroom security

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 14, 2005

Louisiana Seventh District Judge Kathy Johnson has answered the door at her house with a gun in her hand.

While she hasn’t had to use it, it’s just one of the precautions she has learned to live with as a judge.

Johnson and other judges and law enforcement officials in the Miss-Lou were watching coverage Friday after a gunman shot and killed a judge and two others at an Atlanta courthouse.

Email newsletter signup

And it got many of them talking about what security is like at area courtrooms.

&uot;It has shocked us&uot; into thinking more about security, Johnson said of the Atlanta incident.

She plans to talk to state Rep. Bryant Hammett about the possibility of getting more security measures in place, including a metal detector.

And she will also discuss with Judge Leo Boothe implementing a policy against guns in the courtroom.

Concordia Parish Sheriff Randy Maxwell said he will also look at ways to improve courthouse security in the parish.

Concordia Parish has been &uot;very fortunate,&uot; he said.

&uot;We haven’t had any problems here,&uot; he said. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a threat, he said.

One of the problems deputies and courthouse personnel face is that defendants have more liberties, Maxwell said.

&uot;When you have the Supreme Court guaranteeing the rights of the criminals and not the victims, you put judges in danger,&uot; he said.

Another problem is simply a change in the type of person judges see. &uot;Criminals today are much more vicious,&uot; Maxwell said.

Johnson agreed. &uot;There’s no respect for authority,&uot; she said.

Adams County Justice Court Judge Charlie Vess echoed that sentiment.

&uot;The demeanor of people has gotten steadily worse,&uot; Vess said. &uot;Both (Justice Court) Judge (Mary) Toles and I have had fights break out, people injured. … The people we deal with have already demonstrated they’re not willing to play by the rules. There’s always an inherent danger.&uot;

Vess said courtroom security in Adams County is &uot;adequate.&uot;

&uot;But there are some huge holes that need to be addressed,&uot; he said.

Not long after he was first elected, Vess successfully petitioned county supervisors to put a full-time staff &045;&045; including security &045;&045; in justice court.

Adams County Sheriff Ronny Brown has been lobbying supervisors for better security at the courthouse, especially after a tense situation last year during a murder trial.

&uot;We need to do (something) before it happens here,&uot; Adams County Sheriff Ronny Brown said.

Brown is seeking $250,000 to put five deputies at the courthouse. Currently, the sheriff’s office has one person at the courthouse during criminal trials, and the officers guarding the federal court are deputized in case anything happens elsewhere in the courthouse.

&uot;The judges are scared, and they’ve got a legitimate complaint,&uot; Brown said.

If the county does not provide extra money, Brown said he would have to look at rearranging his current staffing.

&uot;Maybe we’ll have to take somebody off the streets to secure the courthouse,&uot; he said.

Both Johnson and Vess said attention must be paid to smaller courtrooms as well as larger ones.

&uot;These little country parishes have no security,&uot; Johnson said.

Vess noted that other courts in Mississippi have greater security than justice court. For example, federal judges are guarded by marshals, while other courtrooms have deputies and other security. Adams County has one of the few justice courts with full-time security, he said.

For the past decade, Vess and other judges have lobbied the Legislature to have justice court judges added to a law that allows judges to carry a concealed weapon. The bill died in committee again this year.

&uot;Every person has the right to feel protected when they go in the courtroom,&uot; Vess said. &uot;That’s justice.&uot;