New study shows state's courthouses don't have enough security

More than half of the state's 39 counties don't have security screening at their central courthouses, according to a study from the Washington State Superior Court Judge's Association released Jan. 8, 2018. (Photo: KOMO News)

SEATTLE - Metal detectors greet visitors at the three King County Courthouse entrances, but a study released Monday by the Washington State Superior Court Judge’s Association says that’s far from the norm.

More than half of the state’s 39 counties don’t have security screening at their central courthouses. Courthouse personnel aren’t being trained to handle active shooters and other security-type trainings, the study said.

“You have high emotion running on the issues that are presented here in superior courts and providing that safe environment is really something we want to see happen,” said King County Superior Court Judge Sean P. O’Donnell. “Other than adoptions and marriages usually the people are coming to court because they have a conflict.”

In March, the state Supreme Court made it clear that courthouse security is a priority. In General Rule 36, the court said a “safe courthouse environment is fundamental to the administration of justice,” according to the judicial study.

After that rule was adopted, O’Donnell began surveying colleagues statewide about their workplace security.

Eric Johnson, Executive Director of the Washington State Association of Counties, said the people he works with at the county level across the state have long complained about the lack of security in courthouses.

“We have so many counties that are struggling with their fiscal sustainability that they don’t have the resources necessary to do all the things that’s expected of them,” Johnson said. “We’ll be working with the state legislature to point out to them the necessity to make more investment into the trial court system.”

Lisa Ayers and Lisa Olsen, who are both commissioners in Pacific County, said they’ve researched beefing up security in the historic South Bend courthouse but say the county just can’t afford it.

“It always comes down to funding,” Ayers said.

The worry for O’Donnell is that the state, and counties, won’t step up until too late.

King County didn’t install metal detectors until after the murder of Susana Blackwell in 1995. She and two friends were killed by her estranged husband at the courthouse.

The same for Grays Harbor County – they installed weapon screeners after a judge and a deputy were attacked by a knife-wielding man in 2012.

“People get mad at the county it doesn’t matter what department you’re in, so it’s always on our minds,” Olsen said.

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