Violence in Courts Prompts Action near Kansas City

A man convicted in Jackson County of a baseball bat assault last month smashed a water pitcher, shook his fist at the judge and stormed the bench.

In another Jackson County case this month, friends of a man just convicted of murder followed a visiting judge out of the downtown courthouse.

And last year, a Jackson County circuit judge's stolen laptop surfaced in Oklahoma alongside pounds of methamphetamine.

County judges here and elsewhere are demanding more security this year following incidents like these and high-profile national cases of violence against judges.

After the killings of a federal judge's relatives in Chicago, the murder of a judge and three others in an Atlanta courthouse, and an incident Monday in Seattle in which police killed a man who brandished an inert hand grenade in a federal courthouse, the need for bolstered courthouse security is getting new attention.

Area courts have already started making security changes.

Wyandotte County District Court has added two metal detectors, employee pass cards and is working on other changes, county officials said.

Equipment has been upgraded at the Clay County justice complex and a state expert was brought in to study security. Judges are awaiting the study results to make other changes.

Johnson County upgraded security years ago after a defendant shot himself to death in a courthouse bathroom.

In Jackson County, video cameras for entrances have been ordered and employees will soon start entering with a pass card swipe system, Sheriff Tom Phillips said last week at a meeting to discuss courthouse security.

Presiding Jackson County Judge J.D. Williamson called the meeting, which included representatives from the Jackson County Legislature and the county executive's office and Phillips, who is in charge of courthouse security. A public defender and representative from state probation and parole also attended.

They learned that Cass County's new criminal justice building -- with courts, a jail, the Sheriff's Department and prosecutors in the same area -- is among the most secure, along with federal courts.

Williamson said he wanted everybody working together for efficiency and cost savings in upgrading Jackson County court security.

People come to the downtown and Independence court buildings for court matters, but they also come to deal with taxes, land records, marriage licenses and other things, Phillips said.

About 1 million people a year besides employees entered three Jackson County court buildings last year, Phillips said. Employees at metal detectors at the Independence and downtown courthouses have confiscated more than 21,400 items that could be used as weapons, mostly knives or razors.

There were 25 reported thefts inside all county court buildings last year, ranging from money stolen from employees' purses to at least one computer.

Strangers can wander into clerk work areas and even judicial chambers. Not even courtrooms are secure, judges say. Thieves have stolen laptop computers off the benches of two judges in the past two years.

One laptop taken last year, later found in Oklahoma City in a car with two men and pounds of meth, belonged to Circuit Judge John Torrence. He noted later that criminals and persons charged with crimes constantly roam the courthouse.

"A lot of slugs and lizards and thieves come through here, and they show up in different places," Torrence said.

In the meeting, Williamson said doors leading to work areas and chambers should have coded locks to limit access, like in federal and other courts.

County officials should work together to find grants or other funding to pay for security improvements, he said.

Whether people are coming in for taxes, trials or hearings, officials say that most of them don't want to be there and are already in a bad mood.

That was especially true of the man who charged Judge Stephen Nixon last month. Jurors convicted him of assault and Nixon revoked his bond. There was no deputy in the courtroom when the defendant cursed the judge, broke the pitcher and went for the bench. His defense attorney blocked his way and the defendant's mother ran from the audience to stop him.

In another case reported to the group, a visiting judge in a murder trial this month was followed as he left the building. A deputy escorted the judge to his car.

Williamson reminded them about a 1992 court shooting in St. Louis County, in which a man shot his wife to death and wounded four others at a divorce hearing.

"At the time that happened there was a meeting of officials talking about what they were going to do about courthouse security," Williamson said. "They were too late."

The group agreed to meet again soon, after an ongoing audit on courthouse security is complete.

Platte County Circuit Judge Lee Hull said the county has no immediate plans to upgrade security beyond metal detectors and armed deputies in courts. He is concerned about the increasing danger.

Years ago, Hull said, he used to hold weekend and evening court sessions along with only his clerk.

"That is a thing of the past; you'd have to have a mental health check if you did that today," he said.

Wyandotte County District Court has added two metal detectors and employee pass cards. Changes are on the way in Jackson County, including video cameras for entrances and an employee pass card system.