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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

"We have had defendants get out of the courtroom," Pissaro told POLICE, "but not out of the courthouse."

This has happened about a half dozen times, but they have always captured these people within the building, which is a fifth-of-a-mile long.  The building was deliberately designed to have separate entrances for the public, the judiciary and the prisoners.

Tight Security is Evident

"It is a comforting building," he said.  "We know it and the would-be escapees do not. An escape attempt has never been the case with a person brought into the courthouse from the jail facility but always with a person who reports for his or her court hearing from out on the streets."

A person reporting to the court from outside may not be willing to accept a sentence of incarceration from the judge.  There is no way for such a "runner" to clear the building.  Notification of his or her escape and a description is immediately put out and all "surplus" personnel begin the search.  The entrance X-ray crew will become a skeleton crew and other deputy-bailiffs will hurry to the exit doors.

Problems in the court can include family members from both sides of a case.  There is a happy side and an unhappy one.  The judges always give a warning to speculators, but this frequently doesn't work in restraining people.  The altercation can continue from the courtroom and out into the parking lot, and it is a special problem in cases of murder or battery where the families live in the same neighborhoods.

Being law enforcement officers, deputy-bailiff handle the parking lot incidents and can call for assistance from deputies assigned to patrol duties.

Unfortunately once a situation goes out into the parking lot bailiffs don't know what the people have in their cars.  Problems like this often result in the aftermath of drive-by shooting cases.  In the courtroom itself, if the disruption continues, the judge can order, "Clear the courtroom."   A judge is the only person empowered to do this.

Cameras as well as an exterior building patrol, conduct building security.  They check courtroom doors to make certain they are locked at the finish of the proceedings of a court as well as double-checking locks before the proceedings of a court begin.  The first deputy-bailiff to enter a courtroom does a visual security check for contraband and bombs, which includes bending down and looking under all desks and tables.

Boxes or packages found near or inside the Hall of Justice are treated as bombs as well as packages found by the entrance gate.  The staff does not handle such packages.  Bomb disposal deputies from the sheriff's office are called out.

The deputy-bailiffs will look over the writing on such packages and follow up.  For instance, one package came up with a machine image showing the components of what could make up a package bomb.  After examining the identifying marks on it, bailiffs called the person at the given address and found the package to be a recorder.

In-Service Training

From their law enforcement training, the deputy-bailiffs know what signs to look for that indicate a person is signaling intent to act violently, i.e., eyes, the making of fists, words, a tension when the person's arm is felt, and so on.

Violent national courthouse incidents are reviewed and discussed as training tools.  Firearms takedown and control techniques training take place at the Southeastern Public Safety Institute (the area police academy-the SPJC All-state Center, St. Petersburg).  In addition, deputy-bailiffs who take a sheriff's officer car to and from work must take defensive driving courses.

Crop. Greg Chaisson, a trainer, says, "Training for deputy-bailiffs is difficult, because judges determine how aggressive we can be in handling a threat.  Currently, I am rewriting old lesson plans based on real-life case studies: how people were killed in the courtrooms and the gangs that are active on the streets.  There have been problems of a person or persons going to court and both his gang and an opposing gang show up en masse.  We teach how different gangs dress so that the deputy-bailiffs know what to look for.  About seven years ago we had a serious problem with a knock-down, drag-out fight, where road deputies had to be called in to help handle it.  The threat level is very high because of nylon or plastic knives, sheer numbers made threats."

Bailiffs are now carrying ASP expandable batons, gas, and retention holsters.  These holsters require more than one step to remove the weapon and bailiffs must practice drawing quickly from this type of holster.  Deputy-bailiffs are encouraged to wear protective vests.  Drawing of firearms training is a little different from that of a road deputy because the bailiff must draw from web gear worn under a sports jacket.  Deputy-bailiffs wear uniform sports jackets, because the chief judge in this area doesn't like the weapon showing.

Bailiffs also practice drawing and shooting from stopped cars.  In these situations the deputy-bailiffs have to draw wearing their jacket and a seabelt.  They train in whatever the judge requires, be it coat and tie or women's dress.

"New scenario training will include where to position ourselves in relationship to the judge and the bad guy," Chaisson said.  "Remember; we think of these prisoners as bad guys or suspected bad guys thinking of ways to 'rabbit.'  We have done well in getting doors locked on time to thwart runners.  Our courthouse is well designed as far as public access.  We don't have some of the problems that other courthouses have.  There is an unarmed deputy-bailiff in the courtroom holding area (one for every two courtrooms) and at least two armed deputies in the courtroom.  One deputy-bailiff directs the prisoner/defendant directly to the defense table.  Generally, his attorney will be there.  We reverse the process when the court session is over."

Deputy-bailiffs are cross-trained, because during times of emergency, such as a hurricane, they can be called upon for road duties.

While today, in the United States, the bailiff shares duties with law enforcement, the position itself is much older than that of a police officer.  The job of the bailiff goes back to the Middle Ages and the Magna Carta in England.  For almost 700 years the bailiff has held the responsibility for both protecting the rights of the prisoners and the dignity of the court.

The job is the same today.

Jim Weiss retired as a police lieutenant from the Brook Park (Ohio) Police Department and Mary Dresser is a free-lance journalist.  They are regular contributors to POLICE.

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