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Preventing courtroom violence an elusive goal

Preventing courtroom violence is complex and elusive task, experts say.  Not all threats are obvious or  predictable. 
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There’s a dark maxim within law enforcement circles that says if a person is willing to die to kill another person, there’s a good chance the act will be accomplished. 

According to a Secret Service research paper called “Preventing Targeted Violence Against Judicial Officials and Courts,” traditional methods of preventing “targeted violence,” when the suspect is known to law enforcement, are “unlikely to be helpful.”

The authors of that paper dismiss the notion that law enforcement can profile an assassin. They say it's a myth that most people who commit these crimes are mentally ill. And they say those who make explicit threats are not the most likely to carry out the attack.

However, acts of targeted violence are often “the end result of an understandable, and often discernible, process of thinking and behavior,” the paper says.  Such attacks “almost without exception, were neither impulsive nor spontaneous acts.” 

Friday’s shooting in an Atlanta courthouse in which a man on trial for rape overpowered a deputy, grabbed the gun and opened fire killing a judge and two others appears to have been an act of opportunity, law enforcement officials say.  But some believe there were clear danger signs.

“This case is driving me crazy,” said Clint van Zandt, a former FBI profiler and MSNBC consultant.  “You don’t have be a profiler to know that a man with a violent past, that’s been in jail for seven months and is then caught with [homemade weapons] in his socks in the court, the day before the shooting, is a security risk.”

How to go about preventing or predicting courtroom violence “is the $64,000 question,” said Bill Keller, a former U.S. Marshal who was detailed to courtroom security and is now director of the Fraternal Order of Law Enforcement.  “How do you prevent these acts of violence is tough because, you can’t have a police state and we don’t want to have a police state,” Keller said. 

But law enforcement can’t prevent threats they never hear of.  A 1994 GAO study found that nearly 25 percent of judges responding to a survey on judicial threats didn’t report all or even most of the threats they received, according to the United States Marshal Service.

Prevention depends a lot on visibility, Keller said, “having as many officers in sight and on the scene as possible.”  And still, there are no guarantees that having officers in place will absolutely stop someone intent on carrying out a violent act, Keller said.  “The Secret Service says: ‘If a man has the ideology and is willing to give his life… he has a good chance of accomplishing his mission.’”

Training and awareness crucial
“I’ve been in Atlanta and been in that courtroom and their security is really good,” said James Wallace, director of training at Crisis Management Corporation, a Texas-based law enforcement training company, “so, if somebody didn’t bring a weapon in to [suspect Brian Nichols] he basically got it away from an officer.”

Wallace speculates that the suspect was allowed to get too close to the deputy to gain access to the deputy’s gun.  “The bottom line is, to be very honest with you, I feel the officer who [the suspect] took the weapon from probably wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention,” Wallace said.

But keeping a courthouse deputy engaged day after day can be a problem, Wallace said.  “They don’t feel the threat level is really up there and of course they can get complacent,” he said.

The best antidote to that complacency is training and practice, Wallace said.  The problem is that most agencies don’t have the time and money to keep up training and practice a priority, Wallace said.

“Officers do get at ease with what they are doing,” Wallace said.  “It has to have been a fact that this officer wasn’t aware of the surroundings and what was going on. She didn’t expect a problem there… and was taken by surprise.”