Penn. County Updates Courthouse Defendant Security Policy

The top brass at the Allegheny County sheriff's office tweaked a new courtroom shackling policy this week, giving judges the final say in whether incarcerated defendants and witnesses remain uncuffed during criminal proceedings.

Also, officials distributed stun guns to the deputies charged with preventing improper conduct in the courts.

Capt. Donna Best issued the shackling order last month, requiring sheriff's deputies to use leg irons and shackles on all prisoners at all times in the county courthouse unless they are involved in jury trials.

It wasn't until this week, however, that several judges and defense attorneys began to question court deputies about whether the shackles could come off -- as they often have in the past -- for plea agreements and nonjury trials.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Wednesday that judges were not formally notified about the new procedure although few objected to it.

Wednesday afternoon, deputies were told at a meeting that from now on they must inform their assigned judges that inmates will arrive cuffed and shackled, but the judges themselves have the final say about whether the shackles remain on or are taken off during nonjury hearings.

A sheriff's spokesman said the policy was changed after a defendant ran from Judge Lawrence J. O'Toole's courtroom in July before a deputy could restrain him. Family, juvenile and municipal courts have used the heightened shackling measures for years, the spokesman said.

In the past, each Common Pleas courtroom had handled inmate security in its own way.

Also effective this week, sheriff's deputies have an additional weapon in their tool belts. Each deputy was issued a 50,000-volt stun gun yesterday. The deputies were required to undergo training about use of the devices, which subdue individuals by temporarily stopping their motor function.