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Protectors of the Courts: Important and Potentially Dangerous Assignment

A look at how deputy-bailiffs operate effectively in one Florida county.

November 01, 2000  |  by Jim Weiss and Mary Dresser

In a democratic system, law comes before enforcement.  Law is predominant and as it concerns the hundreds of courthouses throughout the nation, it is the duty and responsibility of the bailiff to protect the integrity of the judicial system and ensure the safety of the court at all times.

Package bombs, prisoners attempting escape, contraband, disruption of the court, intimidation and surveillance are part of the threats dealt with daily by deputy-bailiffs.  Their responsibilities also include the protection of judges, witnesses and jurors and the processing of bail-bonded persons reporting for court.  Deputy-bailiffs assist in enforcing the decisions of the courts and in keeping order during the proceedings of the court.  In addition, these officers supervise the security gate inspection machines.

In Pinellas County (St. Petersburg-Clearwater) Fla., county judges handle misdemeanors; circuit judges hear felony cases; juvenile judges are responsible for children; and a Career Criminal Division, made of rotating judges, sits on cases involving recidivist defendants and those facing prison terms of 30 years or more.

What does this mean for the police officer or detective whose duties include working the streets and appearing in court to give testimony?  Often the testimony is against some person or persons the officer has changed with a crime or provides information about persons that the prosecutors allege to be criminals.

Sometimes officers are intimidated by menacing looks, hate eyes, silently mouthed threats, or spoken words that cause concerns for safety.   These threats may come from the defendant(s), gang-banger buddies, friends or relatives of the person being prosecuted.

Court rules forbid an officer from carrying firearm or secondary weapons into the court building proper.  An officer may feel somewhat naked and, like the judge, witnesses, jury and everyone else in the court, be obliged to rely on the deputy-bailiffs as the primary source of protection.  In our system, it is the courtroom bailiffs who are armed (and occasionally a judge)-not the testifying officers.

This is a look into the dynamics of courtroom security in an area of moderately high population density: Pinellas County.

"We Are All Law Enforcement"

Sgt. Nick Pisarro of the county sheriff's office-assigned to deputy-bailiff duties-said, "We are all law enforcement, certified by the state.  Deputies are usually transferred to the courthouse from corrections or from working the streets.  Our training is similar and many block of it are the same as for regular deputies.  There is standard re-certification every four years-with updates in CPR training, firearms and blood-borne pathogens done on a yearly basis."

There are 115 deputy-bailiffs in all here: 72 work at the main courthouse; the others work at two civil court complexes or at the three juvenile complexes.  All divisions are expanding caseloads because crimes are growing.  Authorities note that there is an increase in gang activity and car theft.

"We learn to be diplomatic and provide what a judge wants," Pissaro told POLICE.  "When a courtroom is in session, we provide two deputy-bailiffs to the room and at times more.  There is a third person with any prisoner(s) held in a holding room off the courtroom proper.  This bailiff has no weapons for the prisoner to take away.  The biggest parts of what we see are motions, arraigments and pretrials.  We have our rules, such as, one defendant to be taken into a courtroom at a time.

"At times, in being accommodating to one judge, we are forced to make a security breach at the expense of a judge in another courtroom.  An example is when one judge wants all of the in-custody defendants, or in-custody witnesses brought into his or her courtroom at the same time.  To provide the manpower security for the judge ordering this forces us to shortchange another judge.  We make provisions for sudden requests."

Court Security

Correction officers walk prisoners from the jail cell to the courthouse through an attached tunnel leading from the jail.  Prisoners are brought over from the jail to the courthouse in groups-unless there are special circumstances, such as a problem prisoner or a protected witness.  A hostile or aggressive prisoner is given the code word "Red Dot."  Usually only the problem prisoners are handcuffed for this walk.  They are housed on the courthouse's first floor and then shuttled to the courtroom floor on secured elevators operated from a control room.

Every two courtrooms share a holding cell between them.  Prisoners are under surveillance by cameras and in view most of the time.  Occasionally a judge restricts media camera activity in the courtroom.  If there are any signs that a particular inmate has made a threat or there is a problem, the bailiffs respond accordingly.  In the trial itself, if the person is insulting or embarrassing the court, the judge is the controlling factor.  Bailiffs recognize what each judge will or will not tolerate and will usually tell a person who is acting out to quiet down.

In protecting the integrity of the court, it is the judge who tells deputy-bailiffs to act further, such as ordering removal of a person from the courtroom.  For walk-ins who come into the courtroom and are taken into custody through the court processes, the system of removing them from the courtroom to the jail is reversed.  The judge's word is final as to when such a person is to be taken into custody and held in holding.  Bailiffs do the fingerprinting of all persons found guilty in the court in the presence of the judge; they are photographed and fingerprinted again at their incarceration destination.

If a witness is threatened, it is usually the state prosecutor who makes special arrangements.  For example, the witness may be brought in through a back way and not through the main entrance.  In high-profile cases, some witnesses are frightened.  For witnesses and jurors from the same neighborhoods as a defendant(s), this is a particularly tough problem because their daily lives are spent in proximity to these, sometimes, vicious people.  Jurors are often required to give their names in the courtroom after delivering a verdict.  Bailiffs provide juror protection to and from cars.  Usually state prosecutors and their investigators arrange for witness protection away from the courthouse.

Judges rarely allow shackled or handcuffed prisoners in the courtroom.  Sometimes under special circumstances this will be done.  Out-of-control prisoners are handled physically or the judge can order a person removed from the room.

An Incident Unfolds

Usually disruption occurs after the verdict or when a prisoner refuses to come to the courthouse from the jail.  Jail personnel bring these persons over in restraints, informally called a "suit case."  Defendants are given every opportunity to attend their trial unless a judge orders them out.  There is a special restraints chair available for courtrooms, but it is very rarely used.

"We have only used pepper spray once in a courtroom," said Pissaro.  "A physical type of fighter was warned, but he wanted to fight and tried to fight all of the way back to the jail."

In recalling the incident, Deputy-bailiff Carlos Bennett added, "I was working in Domestic Violence Court.  The judge sentenced a man to 120 days.  The man, muscular and a little over 6 foot in height, just went off.  He lost it and went to move to the judge's podium, saying, 'This is a-----joke.'  He swung and hit me and stepped around the podium towards the judge.

"I moved toward him and tried to do a take-down.  He managed to hold his feet together and ended up against a wall.  I could not take him down.  He socked me in the back of the head.  He hit me three or more times in the back.  I held my head down so he couldn't strike me in the face.  The other deputy tried to control him, too.

"I stepped back and said, 'No more!' and ordered him to turn around hands to the wall, but he turned around on me.  I sprayed him with the chemical spray from 3 to 4 feet away.  He kept coming at me.  Then the spray worked.  In the effort to put the cuffs on him, he kicked at my groin area, and we became tangled up.  Once we got the handcuffs on him, he knocked over the court reporter's desk.  Help arrived!"

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