Westmoreland County district judges talk safety after Masontown court shooting
In his 27 years as district judge in Derry Township, Mark Bilik has seen it all.
Someone sprayed his office with bullets in 1997. He has received voicemail threats from defendants. He’s even broken up a few fights in the waiting room.
“Yes, security has always been a concern,” Bilik said Thursday.
He closely watched the news Wednesday from neighboring Fayette County, where police said Patrick Shawn Dowdell, 62, of Masontown entered the office of District Judge Daniel Shimshock with a handgun and opened fire. Authorities said he wounded four people, including a police officer, before another officer shot and killed him.
The victims were treated at local hospitals. Their injuries were not life threatening, investigators said.
The gunman was scheduled to appear for a court hearing before Shimshock on charges related to an August domestic assault case.
“That judge’s office was fortunate he was in the middle of the town with a municipal police department on duty. … A lot of us are out in areas without municipal police forces,” said Bilik, whose staff is separated from the public by a pane of glass. “It can be just a smirk or someone’s body language. You have to stay on top of it; one warning is all you get and a second time and you’re out. … You can’t put up with that.”
Westmoreland County has 17 district judges. The Greensburg district court is the only one with a stationary metal detector and daily, on-site security because the building is connected to the county courthouse. There are several new district court buildings, but many are in older facilities that would be costly to renovate.
In light of Wednesday’s shooting and ongoing safety concerns among area judges, county magisterial courts administrator Don Heagy said his office plans to ask county commissioners to fund a cost analysis of installing “a free-standing magnascanner and hand-held wand (metal detectors) that would be manned each day by a sheriff’s deputy in each office.”
Such a discussion has “been needed for a long time,” Heagy said.
District judges handle several types of cases, including landlord-tenant disputes, traffic and nontraffic citations, small civil matters and preliminary hearings for criminal cases. Emotions can run high at hearings, which typically are held shortly after a case is filed.
Police officers and sheriff’s deputies sometimes are present. Other times, it is just the district judge, attorneys and those involved in a case.
District Judge Helen Kistler shares Bilik’s concerns. For years, she has pushed for better security at her Harrison City courtroom. Bulletproof glass and two security doors have been installed, but that doesn’t prevent anyone from bringing a weapon into the building, she said.
“My safety and the safety of my staff is, at every minute, at risk,” said Kistler, who has been a judge for 15 years. “Often, I feel like a sitting duck.”
Kistler takes a bit of solace in the fact that an Apple watch she got as a present can call 911 if she presses a button for a certain amount of time.
“We have to take it upon ourselves in some respects” to protect everyone who may be in the building at any given time, Kistler said. “It’s not just us who is at risk.”
Chief public defender Wayne McGrew said his attorneys have not experienced any safety issues.
“That doesn’t mean that’s not always in the back of your mind, the potential,” he said.
He thinks it would be appropriate to make safety improvements because “you never know who’s going to be coming in and who’s upset,” he said.
District Attorney John Peck recalled a case years ago when a homicide suspect attacked the victim’s family during a preliminary hearing before being subdued by officers.
“The magistrates can have extremely violent defendants before them” and can request additional security or move a hearing to the courthouse, if necessary, Peck said.
At one point Thursday morning at District Judge Joseph Demarchis’ Jeannette office, eight people waited in the lobby and sheriff’s deputies brought prisoners for hearings. No police officers were present.
When District Judge Frank Pallone Jr. holds criminal hearings on Thursdays, a constable is on duty inside his New Kensington courtroom. During the past five years, the office has gotten security upgrades including bulletproof glass and a buzzer-lock system for the courtroom door.
“On our criminal day, nobody comes into a hearing without their purses or bodies checked by a (metal detector),” said Pallone, who has been a judge for 20 years. “You can never control everything, but I feel we’re relatively safe with the progress we’ve made over the past few years.”
Heagy said in addition to Pallone’s office, those for Kistler and Roger Eckels in Norvelt have bulletproof glass because their existing layouts made it possible.
“It’s been price restrictive in the past,” Heagy said.
But Heagy noted that the county has used money from the Administrative Office of State Courts to make a number of safety upgrades over the past five years, including adding shatterproof glass in the court office areas, installing electronic locks and equipping offices with security cameras. Preparations are being made to enable access from outside those buildings. He said the sheriff’s office and county park police have completed active shooter courses in what to do in the event of emergencies.
“Each office has a designated saferoom, and we are doing those (active shooter) courses continuously like we used to do fire drills in school. Each office is equipped with a panic button for emergencies,” Heagy said.
Gun lock boxes can be found in the offices of Ligonier District Judge Denise Thiel, Jason Buczak in Washington Township, Roger Eckels in Norvelt and Chris Flanigan in Greensburg. They are used to safely store weapons, Heagy said. The county maintenance department will install boxes in the other offices over the next few weeks, he said.
Eckels hasn’t seen any fights but still has taken a proactive approach to security. His office has cameras, bulletproof glass and doors with electronic locks to protect staff members. He’d like to add security and a metal detector at all district judge offices, but he doesn’t expect it to happen anytime soon.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see it,” Eckels said, “but it would just be too expensive.”
Paul Peirce and Renatta Signorini are Tribune-Review staff writers. You can contact Paul at 724-850-2860, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @ppeirce_trib. Renatta can be reached at 724-837-5374, email@example.com or via Twitter @byrenatta.