At the North Las Vegas Municipal Court, judges and administrators park in a fenced and gated lot with a keypad security entry system.
In the wake of the recent deadly shooting at the federal courthouse downtown, such precautions are obviously justified. Judges can make violent enemies. To do less would invite trouble.
It’s too bad that same respect isn’t accorded the city prosecutors who are forced to park in an unsecured area that puts them just 20 feet or so from where defendants are released from the adjacent detention center.
The parking arrangement invites trouble.
Repeated attempts to reach Chief Jim Jackson, who is in charge of security at the court, have been unsuccessful. Courthouse sources tell me Jackson recently met with prosecutors about the safety issue, but so far no changes have been made.
In an effort to minimize contact outside court between prosecutors and defendants, North Las Vegas detention center inmates are often released early in the morning and late in the day after the court has closed. It’s also true armed marshals are in the general area.
But I’m told reliably that those minimal safety precautions haven’t prevented defendants from approaching prosecutors in the parking area and attempting to discuss pending cases. And nothing has prevented family members from eyeballing the attorneys and making snide comments. Defendants accessing court services stand in line in full view of the prosecutors’ parking spaces.
“Parking is always a critical aspect of court security,” Lt. Jimmie H. Barrett Jr. says. An 18-year law enforcement veteran, Barrett supervises security at the Arlington County (Va.) Courthouse and is the author of “Protecting Court: A Practitioner’s Guide to Court Security.” “You always want to ensure that you don’t mix areas where people may come into contact with each other who may not feel very positive toward each other.”
Frankly, it seems like a no-brainer.
While declining to address the issue directly at the North Las Vegas court, Barrett says security often becomes lax outside the courthouse door.
At Clark County District Court and U.S. District Court, court personnel parking is segregated and secure.
North Las Vegas prosecutors deserve the same protection.
“A lot of people do forget prosecutors aren’t exactly loved by the people they’re prosecuting,” Barrett says. “If you can’t segregate people, some effort should be made to put some anonymity where people are parking. It’s kind of important.”
In other words, no signs identifying the space as belonging to members of the prosecution.
After studying the history of courthouse violence in America, Barrett concludes that just because a court is small or handles mostly misdemeanors, as is the case in North Las Vegas, doesn’t make it any less susceptible to violence.
On the contrary, he observes, courts of limited jurisdiction in smaller communities often have been the scene of deadly shootings and brutal physical assaults.
“A lot of them don’t happen in the big cities,” he says.
And the defendants who act violently, or cause others to act on their behalf, aren’t always the ones facing life sentences. In the case of the recent deadly shooting of senior court security officer Stan Cooper at the federal courthouse, a man with a criminal history, Johnny Lee Wicks, came packing a shotgun out of frustration with a reduction in his Social Security benefits.
The key to success, in Barrett’s estimation, is in being proactive. Although being proactive includes checking hate-mongering Web sites that encourage violence against the judiciary and other justice system officials, he notes that the physical line of defense starts at the edge of the courthouse grounds and should certainly include the area where the prosecutors park.
Says one interested observer of the North Las Vegas court, “This is an accident, murder, stabbing, or beating just waiting to happen.”
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.