Security steps kept gunman behind 'line,' expert says

CORRECTION ON 01/06/10 -- A story about courthouse security in Tuesday’s edition should have stated that no private security contractors are used at the Clark County Regional Justice Center for screening members of the public as they enter the building.<BR><BR> The county does contract with a private security company to guard some areas of the building.

The Lloyd George U.S. Courthouse opened in 2000 with an array of cutting-edge security features designed to protect it from an Oklahoma City-style truck bomb attack.

But the building also included plenty of protection against a far more likely threat: the lone gunman.

Those security measures appeared to work as designed on Monday, according to at least one expert in the field. Don Hardenbergh is a consultant specializing in courthouse design and security.

He said the armed man who walked into the Las Vegas courthouse on Monday immediately found himself in a security screening area much like those at other federal facilities, and "he didn't get beyond that."

"It's hard to stop someone who comes through the door and starts shooting," said Hardenbergh, who has published papers on courthouse security and runs a Virginia-based consulting firm called Court Works

"The point of security in a courthouse is to keep a person out of the courtroom with a weapon" and protect the judges and others inside the public building.

"There's just a limit to how far you can extend the security perimeter," he said. "If you keep them out of the lobby, then there's nothing to stop something from happening on the courthouse steps.

"At some point you draw the line."

At the federal courthouse in Las Vegas, that line is the building's single public entrance, which comes equipped with metal detectors, an X-ray scanner and armed security screeners backed by armed federal marshals.

All of those safety measures are recommended by the National Center for State Courts, an independent, nonprofit court improvement organization.

Hardenbergh said that is typical of federal courthouses, which generally rank "very high" in terms of security.

It is also typical for federal buildings to hire contractors to conduct security screenings, though in many cases the screeners do not carry weapons or wear bulletproof vests, Hardenbergh said.

The security contractors at the Las Vegas courthouse are armed but generally do not wear protective vests, sources said.

No private security contractors are used at the far busier Clark County Regional Justice Center, two blocks west of the federal building. County marshals provide all of the security, court spokesman Michael Sommermeyer said.

"They're all police officers, and they're all well-protected," Sommermeyer said.

Hardenbergh said Stan Cooper, the officer slain in Monday's shooting, fits the description of many security contractors at federal courthouses. They tend to be retired police officers or security guards, so they know what they're doing, he said.

"You generally can't get much beyond the security screeners" at a federal building, Hardenbergh said. "They're very secure. They're built this way for a reason."

He will get no argument from Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., whose Southern Nevada office is in the federal courthouse. Asked Monday whether he thought more security was needed at the building, Ensign said the answer lies in what happened to the shooter.

"He didn't get past security," he said.

Review-Journal writer Brian Haynes contributed to this report. Contact reporter Henry Brean at or 702-383-0350.