Court Officials in Kansas Want More Security

The threat might come from a prisoner just sentenced or in a phone call or a ranting letter: I'm going to kill you.

Judges have heard such threats forever.

But they seldom talked about them until the recent killings of a federal judge's relatives in Chicago and of a judge and three others in Atlanta.

Now concerned court officials nationwide are scrambling for solutions.

In the metropolitan area, judges are discussing upgrading their home security, limiting courthouse access and adding X-ray equipment at unmonitored courthouse entrances. There's talk of bulletproofing some courtroom benches. And some judges want to start packing pistols.

Firearms training soon will be available to Jackson County judges. Six of the roughly 30 judges already have expressed interest.

Jackson County Probate Judge Kathleen Forsyth hesitated a few seconds when asked if she would be No. 7.

"Well, yeah," she answered. "I would be foolish not to take part."

Probate court acts as a guardian for many mentally ill wards. A few send threats by mail to Forsyth and other court workers.

"They're usually pretty specific ? they're going to shoot you or kill you somehow," she said. "I tend not to read them very carefully, and I get rid of them."

Forsyth also handles a criminal docket. In her court two weeks ago, a prisoner shackled at the wrists and ankles and to other prisoners somehow squirmed out of his jail jumpsuit and exposed himself to female court workers.

"Court security has been a problem forever," Forsyth said. "It's good someone is finally shining some light on it."

A proposal headed for the Jackson County Legislature on Monday would limit off-hours access to the downtown courthouse. The court, among the busiest in Missouri, disposed of about 3,900 felony cases last year.

Wyandotte County court and government officials also agreed recently to push for a metal detector and X-ray machine for an unguarded wing of the courthouse in Kansas City, Kan.

"We need to screen everybody going into the courthouse," said Wyandotte County Sheriff LeRoy Green Jr.

"It's an accident waiting to happen."

A disgruntled plaintiff is accused of the Feb. 28 killings of a federal judge's relatives in Chicago. A rape defendant allegedly wrested away a female deputy's gun March 11 in Atlanta and killed a judge, a court reporter, a sheriff's deputy and a federal customs agent.

Guards at Kansas City's federal court and in Jackson, Johnson, Wyandotte and Platte counties are not armed in courthouses when escorting prisoners. But in Clay County, sheriff's deputies carry weapons.

Johnson County officials already tightened court security after a defendant shot himself to death years ago in a bathroom at the Olathe courthouse.

And at the federal courthouse in Kansas City, an extensive network of surveillance cameras monitors activities. From a high-tech command center, deputy U.S. marshals keep tabs on every hallway and courtroom and all streets surrounding the courthouse.

Jackson County officials, however, think more needs to be done.

A security firm talked this week with the Jackson County presiding judge about firearms training and security assessments of judges' homes.

Judges in Missouri, but not in Kansas, are allowed to carry concealed weapons. Six Jackson County judges have already shown interest, said Tom Dupriest of the Clarence M. Kelley group of security companies.

His firm protects business executives who travel to dangerous countries.

"It's only because of events in recent weeks that we gave a passing thought of offering this," he said of training judges. The cost has not been determined, he said, but judges would pay for it.

Presiding Jackson County Judge J.D. Williamson, who has been approached by several judges who want to carry guns, advocates the training ? for the judges' safety and that of the public. Such training long has been available to federal judges in Kansas City. The federal courthouse has a shooting range.

Williamson said he doesn't believe Jackson County judges would carry guns under robes in court and they probably would not carry them at all times either. But since the recent killings, he said, judges are taking threats more seriously.

Often in Jackson County court, large groups of prisoners are shackled at the wrists and legs and to one another, which makes escape or attack difficult.

Williamson said such protocol can protect judges better than guns, which often are of little use in a surprise attack. He praised a security proposal that County Executive Katheryn Shields said she will present to the Legislature on Monday.

It includes installing a pass card entry at the courthouse's south door, which people currently enter unsearched after working hours. It also recommends fencing the adjacent parking lot and requiring a pass card for parking there.

Courthouse visitors would continue to enter through doors on the north and west, where metal detectors and X-ray machines are used.

Shields declined to comment on the proposal until Monday.

Court officials are working on other security upgrades and will seek county money or grants to fund them, Williamson said. Those include cameras in hallways and coded locks to limit access to judges' chambers and staff. Currently, anyone can enter those areas from hallways, unlike in federal court and most courts in Wyandotte, Johnson, Platte and Clay counties.

Jackson County is also checking into bulletproof liners that would fit beneath judges' benches and provide a safe place to duck. Those already exist in the federal courthouse and in some Johnson County and Clay County courtrooms. Authorities installed them in St. Louis County after a man shot his wife to death and wounded four others in a 1992 divorce hearing.

Jackson County is lucky it hasn't had a similar tragedy, Williamson said.

About 634,000 people visited the downtown courthouse and a nearby annex last year, he said. Fistfights and arguments were not unusual.

Jackson County Sheriff Tom Phillips said courthouse security only came into focus in the last 10 to 15 years.

"It's a work in progress," he said, "but we're getting there."

The Star's Mark Morris contributed to this report.