Violence at Atlanta Courthouse Spurs Concerns in Kentucky

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Visitors to the Franklin County courthouse may simply walk in and out freely, unimpeded by security.

There are no metal detectors to screen people for hidden weapons. And, there are multiple public entrances and exits at the facility, which houses district and circuit courts as well as other county offices.

Armed officers, and a sign warning people they could be subject to a search, are perhaps the most visible signs of security. The situation is similar at many courthouses across Kentucky.

That worries Tina Bryant, whose job as an administrative assistant for the Franklin County Attorney's Office includes taking notes in a courtroom two days per week. Bryant said she's hoping for beefed up security at her workplace.

"Anything can happen here. We have people that get agitated all the time," Bryant said. "If they had a gun or weapon, they could shoot whoever they want."

This month, a defendant in an Atlanta rape case allegedly took a Fulton County Sheriff's deputy's gun and killed four people, including a judge and a court reporter. The incident has prompted some law enforcement officials across the country to re-examine courthouse security.

Currently, there are 124 courthouses or judicial centers throughout Kentucky, including two in Jefferson and Fayette counties.

However, security at each site varies widely. Kentucky's courthouses range from buildings equipped with only an alarm system to those that have tight, modern security.

In 2001, Chief Justice Joseph Lambert led a task force that reviewed Kentucky courts' security systems. At the time, there were 26 court facilities with minimal security, 93 with panic alarms, 19 with metal detectors and 12 with both metal detectors and x-ray machines.

Today, there are 52 court facilities with the highest level of security in place, with three more planned, according to Leigh Anne Hiatt, a spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the Courts.

And, the recently approved state budget called for 18 new court facility projects throughout the state, all of which would have topflight security, Lambert said.

"Our responsibility in this state is to do all we can to prevent the occurrence of events such as (Atlanta)," Lambert said.

Circuit Judge Paul Isaacs, who presides in Scott, Bourbon and Woodford counties in central Kentucky, said security varies at each of the courthouses where he works. Bourbon County has a newer facility and is "far more secure" than Scott and Woodford counties, he said.

"Like courtrooms all over the Commonwealth of Kentucky, on a day-to-day basis, there is no general security for entry into the court facility. On a daily basis - in those two courtrooms - anybody can walk in," Isaacs said in a telephone interview. "It's not something that keeps my up at night, but it's a concern."

Security is much tighter at newer facilities such as the Jefferson County Hall of Justice and the Jefferson County Judicial Center. There, the public has a single entrance and exit and must pass through a security checkpoint that includes metal detectors and an X-ray machine, Lt. Col. Carl Yates of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office said.

However, comparisons between different courthouses throughout the state aren't fair, Yates said. Jefferson County - which has about 10,000 courthouse visitors each day - has more courtrooms, heavier caseloads and more people to protect, he said.

"I think the smaller counties are counties that are less populated and have smaller departments. They're spread very thin," Yates said. "They're spread thin with budgets, they're spread thin with personnel and sometimes they're working with buildings that are much older."

In some cases security differs depending on the type of court involved. The Franklin County Family Court, for instance, has metal detectors.

Franklin County Sheriff Ted Collins said courthouse security is "top on the list" of his concerns. It's an area in which he's always trying to improve, Collins said.

Collins said he would like to see cameras and other monitoring systems installed. But funding is perhaps the main concern, Collins said.

"That's one of the things I've been most conscious about since I've been sheriff is the security of our building," Collins said. "It troubles me. I think about it, and I'm always trying to think of something we can do."