More than 20 of the state’s 39 county courthouses don’t screen visitors for weapons, and about a third of those that do check for weapons don’t carry out such screenings at all public entrances, according to a survey conducted by a judges’ group.
Washington state’s county courthouses are woefully lacking in safety protocols, equipment and trained personnel at a time when security incidents are on the rise at courthouses nationally, a new statewide survey has found.
The survey, conducted by the Washington Superior Court Judges’ Association, found that more than 20 of Washington’s 39 county courthouses don’t even screen visitors for weapons, and about a third of those that do check for weapons don’t carry out such screenings at all public entrances.
Other key findings show courthouse employees are largely undertrained to handle emergency situations; that many courthouses don’t have adequate reporting mechanisms to help document and track security problems; and that state funding for courthouse security is nonexistent.
According to a recent national study, Washington ranked eighth in the nation for the most documented courthouse security incidents from 2005 to 2012.
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King County Superior Court Judge Sean P. O’Donnell, president of the judges’ association that conducted the survey, said he plans to share the findings with county and state lawmakers to highlight the glaring security needs at Washington’s superior courts.
“We’re raising a red flag,” O’Donnell said. “My hope is that legislators, county executives and county councils will look at this and say, ‘Hey, there’s a systemic problem here that we need to address.’ ”
Last year, Washington’s Supreme Court adopted a new court rule requiring presiding judges of state courts to develop security plans and take other measures to ensure courthouse safety. That prompted the judges’ group to distribute the 53-question survey last summer, O’Donnell said. Judges, court administrators, clerks or other personnel representing all 39 county courthouses participated.
The results identified “the paramount security issue facing Washington’s superior courts” as the lack of “adequate weapons screenings at public entrances.”
At one unidentified superior court with screenings in place, security personnel stopped 1,711 knives and 127 guns from being brought into the courthouse in 2016, according to a report based on the survey’s results.
Yet even some courthouses with screening practices in place identified other shortcomings, including a lack of funding or manpower to conduct checks at every public entrance.
“Not only are dangerous weapons being brought into courthouses, but if a dangerous or harmful act were to occur with such a weapon, a recording of the incident is unlikely,” the report said. “Roughly 28 percent of superior courts do not have any security cameras, and of those that do have security cameras, only 64 percent have them in individual courtrooms.”
Security measures employed at courthouses in Washington sometimes were put into place only after tragedy struck.
Metal detectors were installed at the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle more than two decades ago, but only after Timothy Blackwell fatally shot his estranged wife, Susana Blackwell, 25, and two of her friends outside a courtroom in 1995.
The Grays Harbor County Courthouse installed weapons-screening protocols after Steven Kravetz walked into the courthouse in 2012 with a knife, and later attacked a judge and sheriff’s deputy.
While such incidents represent extreme examples, less-severe security incidents routinely occur at courthouses in both rural and urban counties, judges say.
“The reality is, the cases that we handle are turbocharged with emotion,” O’Donnell said. “The courthouse can be a place of conflict. That’s why this issue is so important. You’ve got to have a safe courthouse to carry out justice.”
In the judges’ association survey of Washington’s courthouses, 74 percent of superior courts have experienced at least one security incident within the past five years.
Judge Douglas Goelz, who presides over superior courts in Pacific and Wahkiakum counties in rural southwest Washington, said he has noticed a creeping rise of incidents during the past few years.
“We haven’t had people attacked, but in the last three or four years, we’ve seen some bizarre behavior in the courtroom,” said Goelz, a judge for more than 28 years. “ … It doesn’t happen every docket, but it happens every three dockets or so, where someone acts out and I’ll need to ask the bailiff to intercede.”
Neither of the historic courthouses where Goelz works employs weapons screenings, and the rural, timber-reliant counties such as the ones he serves are limited by smaller, volatile tax bases, he said.
“To my mind, the finances of local jurisdictions are inadequate to deal with this problem,” Goelz said. “The only way it’s going to be funded so that the citizens of Pacific and Wahkiakum counties have the same security measures as those in King County is if the Legislature steps up.”
Each of Washington’s 39 county courthouses is home to a state-authorized superior court — the trial courts of general jurisdiction in Washington. While the state and county each cover half of a superior court judge’s salary, remaining expenses for operating superior courts — including equipment, staffing, facilities and security — largely fall upon the counties.
Eric Johnson, executive director of Washington State Association of Counties, said the judges’ survey is but the latest example “to illustrate the inability of county governments to pay for statutorily required services.”
“For us, it’s part of a larger issue,” said Johnson. “Whether it’s King County or Garfield County, we have to figure out the mechanism for our counties to pay for the rising costs of these and other services.”
The survey noted that despite the increased frequency of security incidents nationally, “the available court security funding from state and local governments is decreasing.”