Chief judges raises court security concerns

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Security at the Moffat County Courthouse concerns the chief judge of the 14th Judicial District, Michael O'Hara, who plans to take this particular case before county commissioners soon.

Both of the other courthouses in the three-county district have security measures in place. But in Moffat County, there is nothing to stop someone from bringing a gun into the courtroom.

In fact, guns are allowed in the courthouse. And although they are technically not allowed in the courtrooms, the only deterrent is a list of rules on plain white paper hanging on the courtroom door.

"Statistically speaking, it is extraordinarily unusual for a courthouse in the United States not to have security," O'Hara said. "Our society is changing, unfortunately."

The courtrooms in Routt and Grand counties are protected by metal detectors and staffed by a sheriff's office employee.

According to O'Hara, those buildings are set up similarly to Moffat County's courthouse, with the courtrooms on the top floor. But officials in Routt and Grand counties have restricted access to all but one of the top floor entrances -- the one guarded by a metal detector.

Visitors can access the top floor of Moffat County's courthouse via any one of four entrances, including the elevator.

Entry-level screening deters people from bringing weapons into the courthouse, O'Hara said. The proactive approach is obviously preferable to reacting to an incident after the fact. By then, "it's too late." O'Hara said.

O'Hara said he doesn't fault Moffat County for its sluggishness in enacting security measures, but he said he will approach the Moffat County Commission about the matter.

"It's my intention that we'll be able to address this in the next several months," O'Hara said. "I want to go to them before something happens."

The judge said his interest in security isn't a reaction to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, but a sound policy that he and the judicial system at large have considered before.

"Everywhere I practiced, I worried about, 'What if?'" O'Hara said. "I have certainly seen a lot of upset people in my time in the courts."

O'Hara admitted that society can't stop violence altogether with stringent security. If someone is inclined to carry out a violent act, it can be perpetrated in many places other than the courtroom. But he said it is important to address the most volatile situations. Because of the nature of the proceedings, the courtroom is one of those places.

There's no denying, O'Hara said, that people involved in some cases have heightened emotions and are upset about what is happening.

"Sometimes they feel like the world is unraveling. It's a potentially volatile situation," O'Hara said.

Moffat County Court Judge Mary Lynne James said she feels safe in the courthouse "because I've been doing the job for so long." But she conceded that courthouse security is something that needs to be addressed.

The question of who is responsible to install the security measures requires no debate. According to O'Hara, ensuring a safe courthouse is a duty placed squarely on the shoulders of the county.

O'Hara provided a list outlining the Colorado Judicial System's opinion on the matter. The list is derived from state statutes and practices some Colorado counties have adopted. It states that counties should provide "security systems, including metal detectors, security personnel, X-ray screening, duress alarms, card-key access, video cameras, etc."

During his time as an attorney, O'Hara saw security measures crop up immediately following the outbreak of the first war in Iraq. While working in San Diego, he showed up to work one day to find entrances to the courthouse chained shut. Only one entrance was left open, where long lines of people waited to be screened.

For O'Hara, it was a realization that "this was unfortunately part of life."

Now, he says, society has become accustomed security screenings. No one questions airport security measures.

"It's second nature," O'Hara said. And he said he's grateful that the system is in place for everyone's safety.

The chief judge said his comments about airports were not meant to draw a comparison with courthouses, but heightened security at public buildings may become "second nature" to residents if O'Hara can persuade the reluctant commission to establish guarded entrances in at least some parts of the courthouse.

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com.

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