Saturday, March 12, 2005
Atlanta shootings lead local authorities to re-assess
"It can happen anywhere," says Franklin County Sheriff Quint Overton.
When Franklin County Sheriff Quint Overton heard about the shooting deaths of a judge, court reporter and deputy Friday morning in an Atlanta courthouse, the first thought that came to his mind was, "It can't happen here."
But in fact, "it can happen anywhere," Overton said. "My reaction was we'd better look at our situation at home, see if we can be more effective."
"When you're in this business, you expect something like that to happen at any time," said Roanoke Sheriff George McMillan, but when a security breach ends in tragedy, "It makes you go back and re-evaluate your processes."
The news struck home with Southwest Virginia law enforcement and court officials. Roanoke Circuit Court Judge Charles Dorsey described coping with the shock when "the very heart of the system that we all treasure and rely on comes under attack." The tragedy in Atlanta "is just blessedly incomprehensible to the cultural norms in our society."
The deadly shooting in Georgia came just 10 days after the husband and mother of a U.S. District Court Judge in Chicago were shot to death in their home.
"I think there will be a re-examination nationwide based on these two incidents" of courtroom and off-site security issues, said federal judge James Jones, chief judge of the Western District of Virginia.
Dorsey said the slayings in Chicago raise safety concerns. "I choose to serve on the bench. That's my decision," he said. "The consequences should also be mine. It shouldn't be my family's."
The suspect in the Atlanta shooting overpowered a deputy escorting him to court and took her gun, police said. McMillan was confident that a prisoner who tried that tactic in the Roanoke courthouse wouldn't get far.
The deputy assigned to escort a prisoner to Roanoke Circuit Court locks his gun in a courtroom locker before retrieving the prisoner, McMillan said.
A prisoner's hands are cuffed behind his back when he is brought to the third-floor holding cell. In addition, the doors leading from the holding area into the courtrooms are locked until the escorting deputy opens them.
At least two deputies are present at every court hearing, and the deputy who is not escorting the prisoner is armed. If the sheriff's office thinks that an inmate might pose some sort of risk, a remotely activated stun device can be strapped to the prisoner's arm or leg.
Franklin County faces new courtroom security issues in the months ahead. On Friday, as part of a long-planned courthouse renovation, the county began moving its circuit court into a vacant building that once housed the county library. Overton said he will confer with county Circuit Judge William Alexander on how best to bring prisoners from the jail across the parking lot to the library building.
The Roanoke Sheriff's Office is about to switch to a type of holster that will be even more difficult for an attacker to pull the gun from, McMillan said.
On Feb. 25, a prisoner being transported from the Buena Vista Magistrate's Office to the Rockbridge County Jail attempted to grab the gun of the deputy escorting him, Virginia State Police said. The prisoner, Jerry Wayne Ruley, was shot in the neck during the struggle and died. A special prosecutor is expected to handle the investigation.