Across Washington’s 39 counties, the work done in Superior Court is charged with emotion. Courts are where people come to legally resolve their most complicated and toxic disputes: failed marriages, child custody disagreements, the break-up of businesses, and criminal matters ranging from domestic violence, to stalking, to homicide. Whether going to court as a juror, defendant, victim, witness, member of the media or court employee, the experience should be safe.
Sadly, the worst has occurred when county courthouses are not secure. In 1994, Timothy Blackwell walked through the King County Courthouse doors, which at the time had no weapons screening, and shot and killed his estranged wife, her two friends, and her unborn child. In 2012, Steven Kravetz entered the Grays Harbor County Courthouse, which lacked weapons screening, attacked a deputy, stabbed a judge, and shot the same deputy with her own revolver.
Prior to these attacks, the superior court judges for those counties had asked for weapons screening at the courthouse entrances and warned about the consequences of inaction. It took extreme violence for change to occur.
This, unfortunately, is the failed formula that seems to be followed when making courthouses safe: dire warnings, predictable violence, and posthumous action.
According to the National Center for State Courts, from 2005 through 2012, Washington ranked 8th in the nation for documented security incidents. That ranking falls behind the state of New York, which has a population three times Washington’s.
Last fall, the state Supreme Court passed a rule that requires all Washington courthouses to have a security plan and security committee. In anticipation of this new rule, the Superior Court Judges’ Association – a group representing each superior court judge and commissioner in every county across Washington – surveyed all 39 counties about the current state of security in their courthouses.
The results are alarming: over 50 percent of county courthouses in Washington do not have weapons screening at their public entrances. Of those that do, only 68 percent have screening at all public entrances.
Our survey revealed that training for court staff is lacking: only 21 percent of superior courts have training for routine security operations, and less than 40 percent of courts conducted any security drills at all, including active shooter training.
Violence in county courthouses is real. Seventy-four percent of superior courts in Washington have experienced a security incident within the last five years. For courts that do screen for weapons at their public entrances, a majority of them prevented 100 or more deadly weapons from entering the courthouse annually. One court prevented 1,711 knives and 127 guns from being brought into the courthouse in 2016 alone.
Courthouses in rural counties are the most exposed. Most highly populated urban counties have been able to fund weapons screening for their courthouses. But for counties with lower populations, money for capital improvements for very old and historic structures, and funding for staff to screen for weapons, is scarce.
Part of the problem for courthouse security funding is that capital and labor costs are handled almost exclusively at the county level, without dedicated state funding. This is despite the fact that superior courts are state courts, with state judges applying state laws. Additionally, while there are state laws that prohibit weapons from being brought to court and provide consequences for assaults that occur there, there are no laws that mandate minimum standards for county courthouse security.
It should come as no surprise that judges are not legislators nor are they experts in making public facilities safe. Superior courts are convening security committees within each county to, among other things, raise awareness within the courthouse community of the dangers that lack of weapons screening poses to jurors, litigants, employees and staff. They will continue to do that in accordance with the Supreme Court’s new rule.
But the heavy lifting on this issue must rest with government leaders who have the power to make change happen: county executives, county councils, the governor, and the state Legislature.
The fact that half of county courthouses across this State have no weapons screening at public entrances should be a call to action. The past formula of asking for help, suffering disaster, and then rushing to “fix” the problem needs an urgent refresh.
Let us address courthouse security now, be better prepared to avoid tragedy, and make our courthouses in rural Washington and elsewhere – the hubs of civic life in our communities – safe for everyone who uses them and who works there.
Judge Sean P. O’Donnell is president of the Washington state Superior Court Judges’ Association.
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