Protectors of the Courts: Important and Potentially Dangerous Assignment

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.

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!"[PAGEBREAK]

"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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