Local courts react to Atlanta rampage

Ann Knef Mar. 17, 2005, 6:22am

20th Circuit Chief Judge Jan Fiss

Madison County Deputies

The recent Atlanta courthouse tragedy--in which a prisoner overpowered a female bailiff, stole her gun and shot three people dead--has sent tremors across the country.

After the rampage claimed the lives of a judge, court reporter and deputy, local courts were forced to ask, "Could it happen here?"

Perhaps no one takes the incident more personally than judges and the bailiffs in charge of keeping the peace.

St. Clair County Chief Judge Jan Fiss said the matter of courthouse security is on his current agenda. He said he would be asking judges in the 20th Circuit if they have concerns or suggestions on how to better prepare for unexpected violence.

“We are discussing this now--and I mean right now," Fiss said Thursday. "It's caused me to think about where security weaknesses might be."

Fiss said he would be meeting with County Board Chairman Mark Kern and State's Attorney Bob Haida to discuss the possibility of more stringent security at the courthouse's two public entrances.

But St. Clair County Chief Bailiff Thomas Burns said he was confident that the security checkpoints outside the criminal, family and traffic and misdemeanor courts are adequate.

He also said he never under estimates the potential for danger in the courthouse.

Preventing violent outbreaks like the Atlanta incident comes from being armed and prepared.

"It would never happen here," Burns said. "In a situation like that I would have had two or three (deputies) assigned" to a prisoner the size of Nichols.

Another bailiff at the St. Clair County Courthouse, who asked not to be identified, dismissed a proposal to get rid of all guns in the courthouse--including those belonging to law enforcement agents.

“Carrying a gun is like carrying a badge,” he said.

In the Madison County Courthouse there is only one public entrance, and all who enter must pass through a metal detector.

In its courtrooms, judges have bullet proof benches with panic buttons located within arm's length.

According to a bailiff who asked not to be identified, if activiated it would take security less than 10 seconds to respond to a situation.

But the same bailiff also stated that if a deranged person was intent on committing violence in a courtroom, there may be little or nothing that can be done to stop it.

One Madison County Circuit judge thought removing all guns from the courthouse may be a better solution than adding more.

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