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Judges' offices get more protection

| Saturday, June 24, 2006

At the office of District Judge Mark Blair in Uniontown, Fayette County, an alleged drug dealer reportedly assaulted two officers.

District Judge John Bova dodged BB-gun pellets at his office in Baldwin, Allegheny County.

Westmoreland County deputy sheriffs have weeded out heroin, marijuana and other contraband smuggled into the office of District Judge Michael R. Mahady in Unity Township.

Now, a $4.4 million project by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts is helping to thwart violence and mayhem at offices of district judges.

As part of the project, 553 magisterial district courts, central booking and night court facilities statewide are being equipped with digital-camera surveillance, duress alarms, shatterproof glass at registration counters and better restraints for in-custody defendants.

In Mahady's case, the digital video surveillance system, installed with an alarm in April during phase one of the project, was used as recently as June 12.

"When the sheriff brought in the prisoners from jail for criminal court, a few of them had to go to the bathroom. Afterward, they swept the bathroom and found contraband in the garbage can behind the bag liner. They were able to run back the security tape and determine who it was that was trying to pass the contraband," Mahady said. The suspected drugs are undergoing lab analysis.

"In the past, we weren't able to see how it got there," Mahady said.

Along with Mahady's office, 17 other Westmoreland County district courts have received video systems and alarms linked to nearby law-enforcement agencies or contracted security agencies.

Don Heagy, Westmoreland County district court administrator, said those offices need to be fortified.

"For many years, security for district courts was dealt with in each individual county, and now the state courts are unified in taking measures to address the issue of security at that level," Heagy said.

The second phase of the project, which began last week, involves installing shatterproof-glass barriers and sturdier courtroom restraints, such as railings, benches and chairs to which defendants can be handcuffed, said Steve Schell, communications coordinator for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

"It will be later this year before those upgrades are installed at offices across the state," Schell said.

Such measures may further help prevent incidents such as the one in December at Blair's office, where, authorities said, defendant John Bernard Smith assaulted two officers in an attempt to escape while awaiting a preliminary hearing on theft and drug charges.

Melissa Renze, Blair's office manager, said that since the video-surveillance system and an alarm were installed no such incidents have occurred.

Nine Fayette district courts have received the video systems and alarms, said Fayette County Deputy Court Administrator Roberta "Sis" Meese.

"We never had any kind of security like this at our offices before, and it certainly helps, and the employees feel much better now," Meese said.

The county is paying to install holding rooms and shatterproof glass counter barriers at its four new district court buildings.

In particular, video surveillance might be just what is needed to keep in-custody defendants in line, said Indiana County District Court Administrator Mike Kuhar.

"You have to assume that people notice cameras. Does that cool them down a little bit• I think it would," said Kuhar, who keeps watch over the offices of district judges Guy Haberl in Indiana, George Thachik in Clymer, Susan Steffee in Homer City and Jennifer Rega in Blairsville.

"I know for a fact that in the past there's been irritable clients, verbal clashes and confrontations, people almost borderline threatening others, but I haven't heard of any incidents at any of the courts lately, and I think it's because the (cameras) are there."

District Judge James Owen has been in office in Kittanning, Armstrong County, since October, and has not had any incidents where he felt anyone was in danger.

Cameras and a silent alarm system were installed in his office several months ago.

"If I had a complaint about what's been installed, I would say there are a lot of dead areas," he said, referring to sections of the waiting area not in view of the camera.

"I can't say it's better or worse," he said of the camera installation. "They put up big signs so people know they are on camera. Does it make (staff) feel more secure• I don't know. If anything could make (us) feel more secure it would be the silent alarm."

There are three located throughout the office.

"I'm not sure the silent alarm is the end-all either," Owen said. "We're not located that far from the state police barracks, but it's still one-and-a-half to two miles away.

"We had a bizarre incident early on," he said, when a panic button inadvertently was pressed.

"We know it works because (state police) called," Owen said.

"Help is help -- as long as the state can afford to do those things," said Bova, the district judge in Baldwin for eight years. "We haven't had anything drastic occur. We've had a couple of physical confrontations. That was pretty well handled without any question."

As for cameras and panic buttons, he said, "We're happy to have it. The potential is always there."

He believes the cameras particularly are beneficial because they're located in the waiting room, where confrontations are likely to occur.

"I did have a couple of BB guns fired at me, which was not very pleasant," Bova said. "I was in the building, but I was not in my chair. That was during court hours. ... We heard the 'click click.'"

Bova also welcomed the panic buttons. If, for example, he were in his office meeting with a woman seeking an emergency protection from abuse order and her husband showed up in the lobby, his staff could press the alarm if they were concerned, he said.

The final phase of the project, to begin during late summer, will involve one-day personal safety and security training sessions for district court staff, conducted by personnel from Temple University's Department of Criminal Justice, Schell said.

"In general, these sessions will cover how to determine when a situation could become aggressive and how best to defuse such a situation," Schell said. "The staffs will also be taught how to better communicate among themselves to more effectively deal with such situations."

The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts plans to use funding from fiscal year 2006-07 to provide similar security upgrades to 67 common pleas courts statewide, Schell said.

"It feels good to have it there," Bova said. "Hopefully, we'll never have to use it."

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