COVER STORY

Threat Assessment

Best practices aren’t being followed for Duval County Courthouse security, but the remedies are simple

Nicki Avena
Duval County Courthouse
Dennis Ho
The balconies offer a field of fire in all directions and opportunities to tip enemies over the rails.
Dennis Ho
Bing, bong, bing! Thinking about what a bullet would do bouncing around these composite rock floors and walls makes your skin crawl.
Dennis Ho
Too many security agents and bailiffs at the courthouse are too unfit to protect the public. With bellies like these, magnetometer scanning of ankles and knees, which requires bending over or squatting, isn’t happening.
Wes Denham
The glass in the U.S. District Courthouse is laminated in multiple layers and rated to resist shattering. The glass is curved to deflect bomb blasts. The glass in the Duval County Courthouse (pictured), by contrast, is flat. It will oppose bomb pressure waves. In the federal courthouse, metal beams are structural; in the Duval courthouse, they’re decorative.
Dennis Ho
Most government buildings and spaces in Jacksonville have anti-ram, anti-blast bollards, but the Duval County Courthouse does not. Patrols were absent outside the courthouse and in the Adams Street parking garage across the street.
Kierah Cattley
The balconies offer a field of fire in all directions and opportunities to tip enemies over the rails.
Dennis Ho
The balconies offer a field of fire in all directions and opportunities to tip enemies over the rails.
Dennis Ho
On every floor, bailiffs sit in control booths like this one, limiting their ability to react to trouble in a timely manner. Some booths have doors with locks.
Dennis Ho
Bing, bong, bing! Thinking about what a bullet would do bouncing around these composite rock floors and walls makes your skin crawl.
Dennis Ho
Duval County Courthouse
Dennis Ho
A desk where video surveillance camera feeds can be monitored sits empty one day in early September.
Dennis Ho
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Wes Denham is the co-author of "Arrest-Proof 
Yourself" and author of "Arrested, What to Do When Your Loved One's in Jail." You can reach him at wesdenham.com.

You should be afraid, very afraid, when you enter the Duval County Courthouse. Security there fails to meet even minimum national standards, according to experts on the subject. This means that, when you enter the courthouse, you might be:

• Shot or stabbed by someone who exploits holes in entry security and brings weapons through metal detectors.

• Blown to bits by truck bombs that are driven into the building or by improvised shrapnel explosives placed in trash cans and hides.

• Shot by a sniper from the unpatrolled parking building.

It shouldn’t be this way. The 2013 fiscal year budget for court protection is $12,615,821. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office employs 280 personnel at the courthouse. In addition, it contracts with G4S Security, an international company with offices in 10 Florida cities, to provide private security staff for 1,820 hours per week. This equates to 45 people working 40 hours per week. Calls to G4S to obtain details about security guard training and compensation were not returned.

In phone calls and emails with one spokesperson from the mayor’s office and two from JSO, all declined to comment on the topic of courthouse security beyond providing budget and staffing figures.

Violent incidents in courthouses are up 670 percent between 2005 and 2011, according to the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), which compiles statistics and has published the national best practices for courthouse security. Shootings, stabbings, arson, assaults and bombings are increasing.

On June 23, an unknown assailant fired two shots into the home of Judge Timothy Corrigan. It’s possible the assailant attacked the judge at home precisely because, as a federal judge, he presides over trials in the U.S. District Courthouse on Hogan Street, which has extremely tight security. Had Corrigan been in the Duval County Courthouse, the attacker might have gotten lucky, and his honor might now be decomposing rather than judging.

Courthouses are full of unhappy campers. Except for the staff and judges, who are comfortably salaried, and the attorneys, who are clocking $250 an hour and up, everyone else in the building is being sued, fined, prosecuted, involuntarily committed to a mental health facility, “violated” into prisons for breaking their conditions of probation, or having their children snatched by former spouses or the Florida Department of Children & Families. Each day is a pissed-off people parade. The scent of rage and fear wafts upward from the atrium’s gleaming marble floor to the seventh-story Valhalla of the senior judges.

As an author of books about jails, prisons and criminal justice, I’m acutely aware of security. I’ve spent years sitting across steel tables from murderers, psychotics, child molesters and armed robbers. I have a professional as well as personal interest to assure that I exit a jail or courthouse with the same number of arms, legs, ears and eyeballs with which I enter.

The Duval County Courthouse gives me the creeps, even more than the federal pen in Folkston where Uncle Sam warehouses some seriously evil inmates.

To test the courthouse security, I spent two days inside the building. I walked the halls, ascended stairways, popped in and out of courtrooms, bathrooms, offices and the restaurant; circled the dizzying balconies, and passed through metal detectors over and over. I photographed the results with a hidden camera. I spent another day outdoors, locating potential bomb hides and checking exterior entries, hiding spots, delivery areas and the prisoner sally port. For two additional days, I photographed the exteriors of the courthouse and parking garage, the anti-vehicle bollards around city buildings and the U.S. District Courthouse.

While writing this article, I passed through metal detectors many more times over a period of six weeks, since I am often at the courthouse on business. I spent a final afternoon inside the parking garage looking for sniper hides and escape routes. I checked each level to estimate field of fire, shooting angle, bullet drop and windage to determine whether a shooter of modest ability, using an ordinary rifle with iron sights, could be successful.

If you’re billing five figures and wearing a suit with no elbow shine, this is called a security audit. If you’re writing for Northeast Florida’s favorite alternative weekly and swanning around in Walmart couture, it’s called snooping.

What I found was horrifying. To confirm that these observations were percipient, not paranoiac, I interviewed experts to ascertain what the best practices are for courthouse security.

Fasten your seatbelt. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

GATEWAY FOR GUNSELS

Walk-through metal detectors are the primary defense against the guns, garrotes, knives, dirks, daggers, batons, billies, balisongs, nunchuks and ninja stars that people bring to courthouses to dispense the street justice that no judge or jury will give them.

At the Duval courthouse, there are plenty of detectors, manned by about a dozen snappily uniformed private agents from G4S Security, an international company headquartered in Jupiter, Fla.

Beyond the detectors, each floor is manned by uniformed, armed bailiffs.

Bailiffs are certified and sworn law enforcement officers who have graduated from the police academy.

They wear uniforms like cops, can arrest you like cops and can kill you like cops, but there are differences. First, according to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office job description, they start at $16.03 per hour.

Unfortunately, they are generally older and fatter than the in-shape officers with the crew cuts (or snazzy buns and braids) and the too-cool-for-school sunglasses who manage the mayhem on the streets. Think of bailiffs as “popo lite.”

Nonetheless, there are plenty of uniformed bailiffs with badges and guns in the courthouse, in addition to the private security guards. Looks good, right?

Wrong.

At the Duval courthouse, entry security has more holes than a murderer’s alibi. I have an artificial knee that contains approximately the same amount of steel as a medium-sized revolver. I passed through court detectors dozens of times over several weeks. On each occasion, the detector alerted. The security agents, however, passed the hand wand no lower than my midsection. Without exception, they said the alert was, “Just the belt buckle.”

Why is this a big deal? Because, without thorough checking with hand magnetometers, bad guys can carry in guns, grenades, even a small rocket launcher, as long as the kill tools are strapped to their lower legs.

So how is metal detection supposed to be done? I talked with Timothy Fautsko, one of the authors of courthouse best practices for the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) in Williamsburg, Va. His prescription? “Security agents should hand-wand each person who sets off an alert, going slowly up and down each leg, front and back, until the cause of the alert is located.”

I also discussed this problem with Jacksonville criminal defense attorney Jeremy Laznetski. His comment? “Security is certainly tighter at the federal courthouse.” That’s an understatement.

Recently, I went to the U.S. District Courthouse to pull paper on some lowlife bankrupt. When my steel knee triggered the beep, security guards frisked my knee, and everything else, from eyebrows to toenails. They do this every single time I go there. When I tried to sneak in a prohibited item (cellphone) into the building, I was politely, but firmly, tossed.

Dale Carson is a Jacksonville criminal defense attorney and former FBI agent who famously designed the multiple cordons of electronic and human security on Cumberland Island that kept the John F. Kennedy Jr. wedding private and the swarming paparazzi and celebrity-crazed palookas far away on the other side of the Intracoastal. (Full disclosure: Carson is also co-author of one of my books.) His take on the Duval courthouse was the following: “The illusion of security is what gets people killed. Inside the courthouse, the public is no more safe than they would be on any street in Jacksonville, except Moncrief.”

True that. On Moncrief Road, where violence has attained mythical status with the prisoners I’ve interviewed over the years, any thinking person would feel afraid behind two inches of rolled armor. The bad guys often show me their .50 caliber handguns and 7.62 x 39mm assault weapons that will blast concrete and steel and zip through Kevlar vests. The place is downright hairy.

Hand-wanding and frisking legs and ankles aren’t particle physics. So why don’t courthouse security guards check more thoroughly? I spent an hour sitting by the metal detectors, camera silently recording, to find the answer. In short, many guards can’t bend down to check legs and ankles during their shift. They’re too big to bend and too fat to pat.

Many may be too old. I say this with sorrow since I, too, am an overweight senior citizen, and a gimp to boot. I have no illusion, however, that I could be an effective courthouse guard. I can barely subdue my shih tzu, much less a young and frisky felon. At the Duval courthouse, the machines work perfectly; the people don’t.

PATROLLING IN THE TWILIGHT ZONE

Inside a courthouse, patrolling is an essential best practice. Charlie Jenney, of Giddens Security Corporation in Jacksonville, directs security at the St. Johns, Marion, Clay and Hendry county courthouses. He gave a detailed description of courthouse patrolling:

“We have officers who are ‘dedicated rovers.’ They conduct both periodic and random patrols. They’re looking for anything, or anyone, that appears out of place. They’re especially alert for unattended luggage, briefcases and backpacks. They go down corridors and into offices, bathrooms, cabinets, closets — everywhere. They poke into trash cans, open cabinets and check door locks.”

At the Duval courthouse, there are an astonishing number of armed, uniformed bailiffs, seven stories of them. Most of them cluster, and repose, in soft chairs and comfortable benches around the central atrium and balconies. I spent days watching them not watch me. I limped along lonely corridors, staggered up and down staircases and cruised in and out of bathrooms. Not once did I see an officer patrolling. In fact, I found card-lock doors to secure areas were open because locks were insufficiently lubricated to allow doors to self-close. I walked into supposedly off-limits offices, peered into cubicles and chatted up the chicks. Nobody said “boo.”

Worse, I found doors to the outside open for the same reason. Unlocked stairwell doors are a horrific risk. They could allow bad guys to exit the building, retrieve weapons, then bring them inside without passing through metal detectors.

The National Center for State Courts states that growing threats to courthouses and the public are fire bombs and explosives placed outside the buildings. NCSC expert Fautsko emphasized that exterior patrolling is essential. The purpose is to deter people before they set fires, destroy vehicles and hide bombs.

Outside patrols also deter assailants who try to take non-metallic weapons like wooden and stone knives, “ballistic pens” and plastic shivs inside courthouses to stab witnesses, judges, lawyers and opposing parties. None of these weapons will set off a metal detector.

In Florida, law enforcement officers can legally stop and frisk suspicious people — but the officers have to be there first. Outside the Duval County Courthouse, and in the cavernous Adams Street parking garage, they’re absent.

You could whistle up a cop faster in the Gobi Desert.

So where were the blue suits? Mostly they were butt-glued to comfy chairs. They were yakking it up with other officers, chatting into cellphones and surfing the web on iPhones, Androids and government-issued desktop computers. So many officers seemed mesmerized by the Internet’s glowing eye that I momentarily mistook them for pod people receiving commands from the Mother Ship. If any officers actually patrolled during the days I roamed the courthouse, they were in a parallel universe.

THE PALACE OF JUSTICE

That the Duval County Courthouse will, according to Jacksonville Public Works Department figures, cost $245 million and that it consists primarily of a seven-story column of expensive, conditioned air, have been exhaustively discussed. What no one is talking about is that the building was designed to dazzle, not to protect, the people who go there. Aesthetically, it’s beautiful; security-wise, it’s a clear and present danger. Here’s why:

Cops-in-the-box: On every floor, bailiffs sit in control booths. Some booths have doors with locks. The booths control bailiffs, not bad guys. A young, in-shape attacker can cover 

8 yards per second at full gallop. By the time an officer can get out of the chair and open the door, the bad guy would be gone. A few citizens might be gone, too.

Bailiffs are boxed inside courtrooms as well. Many officers assigned to protect judges and maintain order sit behind heavy wooden barriers. Some have not one but two glowing computer screens blocking their view. Should a fight or an attack occur, they’re out of position and ineffective, assuming they’re paying attention and not emailing, texting and ogling hotties on the taxpayer dime.

On the vertiginous balconies, bailiffs are boxed in smaller booths that face the wrong way. They are located against the walls, looking toward the balconies. Officers should be on foot, patrolling along the handrails and looking in. The balconies are catnip for suicides and a temptation to assailants. They offer shooters a wide field of fire. If the balloon ever drops, the “control booth” officers will be out of position, unable to help and targeted themselves. I’ve interviewed too many people who enjoyed killing to have any illusions about what human beings can do when they don’t fear death or cops or heaven or hell.

Missing bollards: Without exception, experts recommend that courthouses be protected by anti-vehicular barriers. Generally, these are steel-and-concrete bollards sunk deep into the earth. They will saw speeding cars and trucks in half should they try to run over pedestrians, ram through doors or detonate explosives.

Many government buildings in Jacksonville, including City Hall, have bollards — except for the courthouse, which is the biggest, fattest target of them all. Two blocks away from the Duval County Courthouse, the U.S. District Courthouse is surrounded by super-hard, high-tensile steel bollards that can destroy a car or truck and seriously inconvenience an armored personnel carrier.

Fragsonville, Fla.: Courthouse bailiffs may look relaxed, but they’re packing heat. The uniformed bailiffs I observed carried automatic pistols in side holsters. These are generally 9mm or .40-caliber weapons that hold an average of 15 rounds. That’s scary, because the building is floored and walled with stone slabs. A bullet that misses a bad guy will ricochet, shatter, and spall out razor-edged shards of rock. With no carpet and no sheetrock, there’s nothing to catch the frag except citizens’ flesh.

Boom-Boom Boulevard: Since the Boston Marathon bombing, everyone older than an embryo understands the havoc that can be caused by low explosives packed into pressure cookers and pipes. They know how ball bearings, BBs and nails multiply the kill. In its publication “Courthouse Security Incidents Trending Upward,” the NCSC notes that interior building security is causing an “incident displacement effect.” Translated into English, this means that when bad guys see metal detectors and uniforms inside the courthouse, they get spooked, then set their firebombs and explosives outside the courthouse.

News boxes and trash cans are high-risk bomb hides. According to Fautsko, the best practice is “to move them away from people.” At the Duval courthouse, the boxes and cans have been moved away from the building, but closer to the crowds that throng the broad walkway leading to the entrance.

The boxes hide bombs at waist level. This is more likely to maximize kills and injuries than the ground-level placement of the pressure-cooker bombs that Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev detonated during the Boston Marathon. As for courthouse trash cans — these are made of mild steel bars cross-hatched from the rim to the base. In an explosion, those bars would become flying machetes.

Glass houses: A comparison of the exterior glass used at the Duval County Courthouse with the U.S. District Courthouse two blocks away is instructive. Glass at the federal court is laminated onto multiple layers of polyvinyl butyral and rated to resist shattering. It’s curved — to deflect a blast — and strengthened by metal beams. After Tim McVeigh destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City with a truck bomb in 2001, the U.S. General Services Administration set tough standards for reinforcing federal buildings against explosives. When it comes to security, the feds don’t play.

Glass at the Duval courthouse, by contrast, is flat. It will resist, rather than deflect, blast pressure waves. The website of the designer, Harmon of Minneapolis, describes the metal latticework as “ornamental aluminum trim.” That means it’s decorative, not structural. When some rage-head drives a load of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil explosive up to the glass, and then hits the button, you don’t want decorative.

THE FOG OF LAW

Providing security at a courthouse is like administering anesthesia — overwhelming boredom punctuated by occasional terror. The daily routine of a courthouse can be described in two words: terrible tedium. People shuffle around the balconies and in the halls. They mutter into cellphones, confer with witnesses and attorneys, and commiserate, and sometimes bewail, judicial outcomes. All you hear, however, is a hypnotic hum. Inside the courtrooms, lawyers drone, witnesses stutter through their attorney prep, and judges perorate. Eyes glaze; heads droop.

That’s the problem. The place is full of felons, rage-heads, whack-jobs and their charming families and friends, some of whom would like to slit your throat, and you can barely keep your eyes open!

Jenney of Giddens Security said he trains his security officers to avoid what he calls “Condition White,” the mental state in which you daydream and do not consciously see where you’re going, and “Condition Black,” the emergencies in which you flood your 

body with adrenaline and shut down your 

pre-frontal cortex and ability to think rationally. In the Duval courthouse, too many officers are in a third state, “Condition Snooze.”

It’s serious work to stay on task day after day when nothing happens. As Carson noted, “When security officers are distracted, or unconscious, you have no security at all.”

MODEST SUGGESTIONS

There’s no secret to basic courthouse security. It’s public information and, for the most part, common sense. An organizational infrastructure of government agencies, professional organizations, equipment vendors and security consultants exists to advise court administrators. Courthouse security conferences are held around the country every year.

The good news? The Duval courthouse already has the necessary security hardware — metal detectors, X-ray machines, hand wands, alarms, card locks, surveillance video, security control rooms, etc. The court employs an adequate number of private uniformed officers at the main entrance, and a more than adequate number of bailiffs.

That’s the easy part, because it only requires money. The hard part is execution. This requires managing hundreds of people so that they perform a boring job to perfection, day after day. Here are some suggestions, in standard English rather than the mushy, bureaucrat-speak of government agencies and non-profits:

Bend, squat, frisk, repeat: Sooner than immediately, the security guards manning the metal detectors must start using magnetometer wands correctly. This means

bending down to the floor and frisking — up and down, front and back, side to side — everyone who causes metal detectors to alert. They need to do this all day, every day, with no exceptions. If they don’t, people will be killed.

Off the fannies, onto the feet: The failure of courthouse law enforcement officers to patrol the courthouse, its perimeter and the parking garage is an outrage. Fortunately, the fix requires nothing more than a world-class ass-chewing of all and sundry. The mayor, the sheriff and the chief judge can decide among themselves who gets to bark first. And, yes, get rid of those comfy chairs and those absurd “control” boxes. Inside courtrooms, officers should move around and watch people, not computer screens.

Long-term, given the tedium of courthouse security, the detail should not be a job; it should be a rotation. The courthouse should be staffed in part by real police — patrol officers fresh from the streets and corrections officers fresh from the cells. These guys have frequent experience scuffling with bad guys and crazies on asphalt and concrete. Because they can chase, tackle, handcuff and subdue, they’re less likely than older, out-of-shape bailiffs to draw firearms and blast innocents inside that rock-lined shooting gallery.

Every day, street cops and corrections officers handle people who are violent, drugged and psychotic. They know what to look for — twitchy eyeballs, wiggly fingers, sweat, tremors, crude lies and incoherent babble. They know where to find weapons. They get amped when they see floppy shirts, deep pockets, fat purses and loosey-goosey boots.

Corrections officers are skilled in locating and seizing non-metallic weapons that cannot be detected by magnetometers. They regularly find these wooden and plastic pig-stickers in the jail and on the P-Farm (cop slang for prison farm) out on Lannie Road.

Officers need to be outside the courthouse entrance, on the stairs, looking at people before they go in. That famous “cop stare,” a look that goes right through your skull, can make potential assailants bolt. Real police are needed to keep a hard eye on Clay, Adams and Duval streets. If a terror truck makes the run, they’ll have only seconds to kill the driver or disable the vehicle. Until bollards are installed, they’ll need real firepower. That means high-caliber weapons with armor-piercing rounds that destroy engines.

Make dumb phones de rigueur: Banish smartphones for bailiffs. Walmart burners work fine and will enable Internet-hypnotized staff to return to planet Earth. Besides, all those popo online are slowing the court’s free Wi-Fi. While we citizens are waiting for justice to roll down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream, we want our sports scores, recipes and Facebook pages to download lickety-split.

Stick it to 'em: Issue batons so patrolling officers can poke into trash cans and crannies to search out things that go tick-tock, then boom. Batons have other uses. A smack to the carotids will drop assailants, unconscious, to the ground, and a jab to the stones will keep them occupied while the cuffs go on. This beats firing guns indoors and splattering brains onto those magnificent floors.

Promote pellets: For indoor use, replace hollow-point ammunition with frangible rounds. These have plastic slugs that hold metallic pellets. They kill bad guys without passing through them. When frangibles hit walls, the pellets are less likely to injure innocents than ricocheting lead.

Bust out the Bush Hog: Brush has grown up along the Adams Street frontage and created hiding places for thugs and bombs. Fire up the mowers and whack that thatch!

Bring on the bollards: Start sawing concrete and dropping bollards into the deep-delved earth. In the rear of the building, install retractable bollards at the delivery entrance and prisoner sally port. The iron gates there are flimsy. If the city doesn’t sink bollards, when disaster strikes, plaintiffs’ attorneys will sink the city.

Vanish the boxes; trash the cans: The news boxes need to be moved to nearby locations less tempting to bombers. Trash cans should be replaced with blast-resistant containers. Composed of multiple layers of steel and composites, these mitigate blast, direct it upward, and resist fragmentation. By design, they look boringly ordinary. This tempts bad guys to drop bombs in the cans rather than in stealthier, deadlier hides.

WHY DOESN’T ANYONE CARE?

It’s puzzling. At the jail and the prison farm, the sheriff runs a famously tight, safe and secure operation that I’ve written about in my books. The courthouse, by contrast, seems an afterthought. If I were a judge in that place, with security as it is today, I’d pack a gat in the briefcase, have the suit vests cut from Kevlar, and bolt composite armor behind the bench!

There are two reasons that people who work in the court think they’re safe when they aren’t. First, they’re lulled by the illusion of security. All those cops, metal detectors, cameras and alarms must mean everyone’s secure, right?

You know the answer.

Second, police, judges and attorneys sometimes don’t understand how dangerous psychotics and felons truly are. Perhaps they shouldn’t. The knowledge of evil and its dark, mad joy is forbidden fruit, a black apple from the Garden of Hell.

Understood or not, violent and insane people pass through this building daily on their way to prisons and asylums. If security doesn’t tighten up soon in the courthouse, that shining monument to justice and civic pride will one day plunge, in an instant, into the hideous Batman world of violence and death,

 Called Crime City.

3 comments on this story | Add your comment
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Autumleaves

Good Grief! I would not have given this subject much thought, but now, frankly, a trip to the County Court House is down right creepy. Thank you, Mr. Denham, for pointing out what should be obvious to those who are plainly oblivious, myself included. I would really hate to be on a sensitive jury situation knowing that security at Ducal County Court House was this abysmal. That or just going in to file normal routine paperwork in a place that seems to be teeming with uniforms and guns, but who obviously are bored to tears with their jobs and who feel so falsely secure. One hopes something is done about this situation, that perhaps judges might insist on better security, not just the illusion of it.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013|Report this

frankiem

Great article. The fact that the courthouse was built to "look pretty" and not necesarily secure is not surprising. If they ever put a Dunkin Donuts in there the building will be paid off within a few years. Thursday, September 12, 2013|Report this

sanmarcodude

Security provided by Fat Old Farts, Inc. Friday, September 13, 2013|Report this

 
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